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New London - Under the attentive gaze of Capt. Carl A. Lahti about 100 cadets in New London High School's Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps marched the length of a basketball court in lockstep last Wednesday morning.
Lahti, commanding officer of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, watched closely as cadets presented the colors and arms for the NJROTC's annual inspection and pass-in-review ceremony.
After observing the drill team demonstrations and conducting inspections, Lahti spoke to the cadets of the importance of valuing their education, conducting themselves appropriately and investing in their future.
"If you do those three things, whether you serve in the military or not, you're going to grow up as a stronger person, a stronger American citizen and you're going to be the kind of person who 20 years from now is running for the school board or on the city council and making a difference in their community," Lahti told the cadets.
The NJROTC program is an elective that has been offered for 12 years. All 110 cadets participate of their own accord, despite the sometimes rigorous instruction.
"All these kids have chosen to be in this class. They recognize in coming into the class that they have to meet certain grooming standards, behavior standards and academic standards," NJROTC Commander Ted Ward, who is retired from the Navy, said. "Ninety-nine percent of these kids are not going into the military, but they are looking to become better citizens. That's the reason they're here, to build leadership."
Among the cadets, Ward said, natural leaders emerge and really take charge of the group. Gregory Charles Smith, a high school senior and the cadet lieutenant commander of the corps, got involved in his freshman year after seeing his sister succeed as a cadet officer.
"All the officers are really like big brothers to all the cadets," Smith said. "We all will help if they have any problems and try to teach them what we have already learned. It really is a big family."
Last year the group donated 1,000 pounds of food to a food bank and volunteered 1,200 hours of service.
"We hope that they get the idea that not only do we have rights as American citizens, but we also have responsibilities. And one of those responsibilities is to give back to our community," Ward said.
Ward said the cadets have better attendance rates than other students, have fewer discipline issues, and the program as a whole surpasses the school average GPA.
In March, a team of five New London NJROTC cadets placed second out of 221 Northeast teams on a test administered to every unit in the country.
The test covers all subject matters within the ROTC curriculum, ranging from basic military knowledge on proper uniform dress and marching to government, geography and naval history.
"They're great ambassadors for New London High School," said Principal William "Tommy" Thompson III, whose son is a cadet.