The sun had yet to rise on a chilly Monday morning at Herndon High School, but members of the school's Naval Junior ROTC drill team were already standing alert and at attention in the gymnasium as they awaited their marching orders.
After following a few sets of commands from unit leader and 18-year-old senior student Shivana Bhatt the group stops in the middle of the gym with a resounding thump of shoes, shoulders and heads held high in formation.
"Now what else happened there during that, because I'm not going to say anything," said retired 1st Sgt. Billy T. Williams III, the staff instructor of the team as he overlooked the students, dressed in a finely-pressed uniform, arms crossed quietly behind his back.
"The alignment was way off," offered freshman Lisa Ward, still standing at attention.
"The uniformity is off," Williams quickly returned, "so that means that we've got to get back to the basics."
From the front row, Williams called on sophomore Sienna DeSantis, raising her hand, her head still facing forward.
"Can I switch rifles?" she said, gesturing to the replica ceremonial rifle on her shoulder. "I'm not liking the way this one feels while we're going through this."
THE STUDENTS WERE taking part in morning drill practice for Herndon's NJROTC competitive program, part of the school's Junior ROTC program that boasts a student enrollment of 106. In the three competitions held since the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year, the drill team has placed first in two and third in the other, according to NJROTC supervisors.
"It's that attention to detail, and the fact that it's not just all me, it's teamwork," said Williams of the popularity and success of Herndon's drill team. "With this activity, it's never just one of our individuals carrying the group, it's all of us working together."
And the only difference between the drill team and any other sports team is only a matter of specifics, he added.
"Most schools have a basketball team, a football team, but there aren't too many member schools who have NJROTC programs," Williams said. "With this program, you are a big part of the school, you're joining a team and representing your school, same as other extracurricular activities."
WHILE THE DRILL team consists of only a voluntary segment of the students, it is the whole program's well-rounded and supportive environment that teaches maturity and discipline that Bhatt said keeps her involved.
"I was always interested in the discipline and just being able to get yourself that locked in to something, to focus on success to that degree," Bhatt said of her reasons for being a part of the NJROTC since coming to HHS her freshman year. "I see what I've learned here reflected in just about everything I do at school. It sounds cliché, but I really mean it when I say that it definitely shaped my high school career."
The discipline, leadership skills, time management experience and overall maturity and development that the students experience as a part of the school's NJROTC program have been its hallmarks over its 24 years at Herndon High School said Cmdr. Rick Cassara, faculty supervisor of the program.
The program, which is considered an elective leadership course at Herndon High School, is funded by funds from the U.S. Navy, contingent on an enrollment number of 100 students or more, he added.
"We're pointing these students in the direction to do harder things later in their lives, to challenge themselves," Cassara said. "The qualities and the character and integrity that the students can build here is something that they will take with them for the rest of their lives."
The program's structure and innate atmosphere of teamwork and companionship have been a major factor in attracting students to its ranks, he added.
"I think some of the kids, especially those first coming into high school, they find in the program that they can immediately fall into something where they feel connected," Cassara said. "It gives some of them that sense of stability to help them succeed in those early years, which for many can be pretty tough."
DESPITE THE PROGRAM'S military structure and labeling, it is not a tool for recruitment to the armed services, Cassara said, adding that less than 10 percent of the NJROTC students join the armed forces at graduation.
"Most of these kids are college-bound, and that's where they'll go," he said. "We consider ourselves not as a recruitment program, but a college prep program, designed to give the students the skills to succeed in college and beyond that."
Still, the perception of many parents and their children that the program in some way requires or pushes students towards enlistment in the Armed Services following graduation has taken its toll on recruitment numbers in recent years. Cassara believes the Iraq War has had the most direct impact on those numbers.
It is those very high stakes involved with joining the Armed Forces, especially considering today's global realities, that require him to keep a much higher level of attention to students' questions about possible service upon graduation, Cassara said.
"We tell them to think long and hard about what they are deciding to do and if that is what they want," he said. "We never try to discourage the kids, but we want them to be thinking clearly about what they are signing themselves into if they decide to take that route."
"I think they have a much greater understanding of what it means to serve your country … they have a pretty good idea of what the realities are like for sailors when they go out to sea," he said. "I think that it becomes a part of them for the rest of their lives, and while they don't have that direct military experience I think that it will cause them to appreciate a little more what these people have to do."
That multi-faceted experience can benefit greatly civilians who become involved in their communities and the management of their country in the future, Cassara added.
"When you're voting or getting involved politically, I like to think that you have a bit more experience to make those informed decisions," he said.
For Bhatt, the program's most beneficial aspect is in the additional experience gained that will reflect in the success of any future endeavors.
"It's not just about giving it all for the program, it's about how you can better yourself as a student and as a member of the community," she said. "The whole process is to make you as well-rounded and prepared as possible for college and a career."