Ask Lt. Col. Peter McCarthy about his personal accomplishments as leader of the Riverhead Navy Junior Reserves Officers Training Corps and he’ll likely tell you about NJROTC members and their accomplishments rather than what he’s done to help get them there.
A summary of the group’s upcoming events and recent awards is likely to follow, as Lt. Col. McCarthy prefers to deflect attention from himself. A retired Marine, he learned long ago that what matters isn’t so much the success of an individual, but the group as a whole.
But when Riverhead NJROTC organizes this fall, it will do so for the first time in 12 years without Lt. Col. McCarthy, who is stepping down as the crew’s leader.
“I feel like I have done everything I can with the program at this point,” said the Massachusetts native. “The program is stable and successful and the second instructor here is outstanding. It is time for someone new and a little younger to come in and bring a different perspective.”
Lt. Col. McCarthy, who graduated from basic training in 1981 after earning a bachelor’s degree in economics from College of the Holy Cross, arrived in Riverhead after retiring from the Marines in 2003. By the time he came on board, the program had gone through five or six instructors in just eight years. But after more than two decades in the military, Lt. Col. McCarthy, NJROTC members and their parents all needed time to get used to one another.
“When I first started here I experienced a bit of culture shock,” he said in an email. “Nothing like coming off active duty in the Marine Corps and heading into a public high school.”
After retiring from the Marines, Lt. Col. McCarthy said, he still wanted to be part of a team and “contribute to the greater good.” Early on, he recalled, he was criticized for being too harsh on students — something he took to heart.
“It took me a while to make the necessary adjustments and find the right balance,” he said.
Over time, that balance manifested itself in various forms. In concert with Maj. Bill Grigonis of the Southold-Mattituck-Greenport NJROTC, Lt. Col. McCarthy organized the NJROTC’s Basic Leadership Training Camp, which gives new cadets the opportunity to spend three days at the 4-H camp in Riverhead at the beginning of the school year. There, they conduct team-building events and get a sense of what they can expect from the program.
By 2005, Riverhead’s NJROTC program had been named Most Improved Unit in an area that includes 57 schools from New York to Delaware. Just four years later, it finished in first place overall.
Maj. Grigonis, who is in his 15th year running Southold-Mattituck-Greenport’s NJROTC program, said, “I look up to the colonel. He’s a total professional inside and outside the classroom and someone who has become a friend. Someone I can go to. That mentorship never goes away.”
Nicholas Waldron, current cadet commander of the Riverhead NJROTC program — which currently boasts just over 100 members -— echoed a similar sentiment.
“Even as the highest-ranking cadet in the unit, I can always go to him and get a strong word of advice,” he said. “It’s a melancholy kind of feeling. I’m sad to see him go, but happy to see he’s moving on and will be enjoying himself.”
Indeed, Lt. Col. and his wife plan to start their next chapter with another exciting event: They’ll be hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Photo: Riverhead NJROTC leader Lt. Col. Peter McCarthy. (Credit: Chris Lisinski, file)