CHICAGO, Ill. - The commands called out by the platoon leaders were decisive. Each group marched with precision, taking sharp turns and smooth pivot steps. They answered questions with confidence, stood ready for inspection and even snapped their weapons to drills with commanding presence.
Two Army Reserve command sergeant majors took turns inspecting the platoon leaders, circling around them to pinpoint any possible flaw from every angle.
Watching these young men and women in uniform compete, one might think they were actual soldiers, not public high school cadets.
"It gives me hope that I can pass the torch to these cadets, that they'll take the challenge of being in one of our armed services (some day) to protect the people of the United States," said Command Sgt. Maj. Knute Weick, command sergeant major of the 372nd Engineer Brigade and resident of St. Charles, Ill.
Approximately a thousand students representing 46 schools competed in this year's Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Junior Reserve Officer Training Program's (JROTC) Citywide Drill, hosted at the Carver Military Academy on Dec. 14.
"The whole purpose of this JROTC program is to motivate young people to be better citizens," said Amanda Valencia, a cadet colonel with Hubbard High School.
"Everything begins with the youth. So if the youth is built up strong, then the adults in society will come up (from them)," she said.
To help solidify the competition, two local, Army Reserve command sergeant majors and several drill instructors from the Great Lakes Naval Base served as guest judges for the first time.
"It was great to have them here because it's showing a linkage between various components of our military," said Col. (Retired) Kevin Kelley, director of Military Instruction for CPS and JROTC, living in Riverside, Ill.
Beside JROTC, military members are often involved with community service projects, such as the Fisher House Foundation, which provides affordable living to those in need, and the Toys for Tots Foundation, which donates toys to underprivileged children.
It shows that military members can serve beyond the confines of battle.
"As a Reserve soldier being involved in the community, it shows the public that we're out there. We're taking charge and we're available ... We're out here helping educate our students and individuals that have interest in the military," said Weick.
The Citywide Drill tested JROTC cadets across the Chicago landscape in four events: inspection, platoon movement drills, color guard and individual rifle drills. It tested their ability to work together as a team, while instilling discipline and military bearing.
"It's something that gives them a purpose," said Command Sgt. Maj. David J. Bakke, command sergeant major of the 389th Engineer Battalion and resident of North Chicago.
"It establishes goals, guidance. It instills discipline," he said.
Both of the command sergeant majors involved belong to units that report to the 416th Theater Engineer Command, headquartered in Darien, Ill., located just 30 minutes south-west of Downtown Chicago. Being experts in uniform wear and military appearance, they inspected the platoon leaders from each of the competing high schools.
Additionally this competition is designed to promote strong work ethic and reward excellence.
"To earn a trophy, to earn an award, or to earn recognition, you (really) have to earn it. It's not just given because you show up. These cadets, regardless of creed, color or religion, they understand that," said Weick.
The competition is an annual event, allowing winners to advance to regional or even national levels. Most of the students have trained for more than a year to compete here, often show up to school an hour or more early to practice drills on the gym floor with fellow cadets. This training fosters respect and pride in themselves and their hard work, said Kelley.
"They get rewarded with ribbons and trophies and they see that payoff for them, and their hard work. It's worth it for them," said Kelley.
Cadet instructors from each school are retired military service members, giving them an opportunity to train future generation of potential military members. The JROTC program is designed not only to instill discipline, but to shape good citizens among youths. For many of them, seeing military members involved in the competition meant that service is not just about fighting for one's country.
"It's cool knowing that you're meeting the persons that are serving out there, fighting for our country ... but not only (serving) our country, but take their time serving our schools, our communities and our neighborhoods," said Juan Lucio, regimental command sergeant major JROTC cadet with Hubbard High School.