NJROTC unit sees recruitment spike after nearly losing program

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Ensign Thomas Kopp watches as Lt. Amanda Gallo and Ensign Harold Hubbard high five after Riverhead was announced as the winner of the annual drill meet in Mastic Saturday afternoon.

After years of coming close to losing its Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program, Riverhead school officials expressed concern at a recent board meeting that the program may not recruit enough cadets this year.

But according to current cadets and unit leaders, there’s nothing to fear. In fact, they say, the unit had its largest crop of new recruits in years this spring and will be safe from being cut, thanks to strong recruitment and a solid year of winning drill meets and scholarships.

In their contracts for NJROTC programs, schools agree to maintain cadet rosters of either 10 percent of the host school’s population or 100 cadets, whichever is less, U.S. Navy officials said. The Riverhead NJROTC is bound by the 100-cadet minimum.

“A lot of people are making sure that they don’t come in with a low enrollment number,” said Michael Miller, a public affairs specialist with the Naval Service Training Command, which oversees the NJROTC program.

Mr. Miller said the Navy “loves the [NJROTC]” but was forced to start making cuts to programs that couldn’t get their enrollment numbers above contractual obligations.

“We’ve never wanted to cut units,” he said. “Now, because of the fiscal climate we’ve had the past few years, we’ve had to go ahead and start cutting units and the ones who are getting cut are the ones who aren’t meeting that minimum enrollment requirement.”

Due to past struggles reaching the required numbers in Riverhead, school administrators were worried the unit would lose its funding next year.

“[The Navy] never really paid attention to [enrollment] before,” said Lois Etzel, Riverhead’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. “The government has gotten very stringent about following the regulations about the size.”

Harry Hubbard, a senior at Riverhead High School, NJROTC drill team commander and executive officer of the unit, said the Riverhead unit was on probation with the Navy due to low enrollment. He attributed a bump in this year’s enrollment numbers to better recruitment efforts in the middle school.

“This year at recruiting, we really got it down,” he said. “We were a lot more emphatic with the kids.”

Harry said the unit will have a total of 123 cadets this school year, 20 more than it had last year, thanks to an influx of at least 50 new cadets from the lower grades.

“It’s insane,” he said of the number of new recruits. “I’m not sure how we’re going to handle it.”

He added that the three prestigious scholarships won by Riverhead cadets last school year, as well as success at drill meets, may have played a part in bringing the program to the forefront.

“I think it was more of the recruiting that did it, but … hearing that you can go to college, basically for free, helped,” Harry said.

Lt. Col. Peter McCarthy, leader of the unit, could not be reached for comment.

Mike Kujawski, a senior chief in the Riverhead NJROTC unit, said cadets do much more than drill and win scholarships; they also volunteer at beach clean-ps and with the Riverhead Rotary Club, as well as serving as color guard for local events.

Having more than enough cadets will let the unit focus on those activities, he said.

“It’s really exciting for not just me but for all the other cadets who are enrolled,” Mike said. “We can just stay afloat from that funding from the Navy.”

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