RICHMOND, Va. - More than 400 college ROTC and high school JROTC cadets from across the country gathered at the Greater Richmond Convention Center on March 14 for the 2015 John J. Pershing Memorial Drill Competition.

Local participants included an Army Reserve Officer Training Corps team from Virginia State University in Ettrick and the Junior ROTC class from Dinwiddie High School - one of two groups competing in the 4th annual "Blackjack" drill side of the event. Out-of-state competitors included teams from Northern Arizona State University, Flagstaff; the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where the first Pershing Rifles group was founded in 1894; and the University of Toledo (Ohio) - returning 2014 drill meet champions.

The 392nd Army Band from Fort Lee performed during opening ceremonies, adding to the pomp and circumstance that accompanied the presentation of Army and national colors and a pass in review. The kickoff also included the introduction of honorary reviewing officer - retired Maj. Gen. Alfred Valenzuela - and remarks by Richmond Councilman Parker C. Agelasto.

"What an honor for our city to be able to once again support these great ROTC cadets who are coming to us from across the nation," Agelasto said at the conclusion of the opening ceremony. The 2014 competition and Pershing Rifles Alumni Association convention also took place in Richmond.

"These young folks are continuing the legacy of the Pershing Rifles group, which is all about honor, dignity and discipline. It is truly inspiring." Agelasto said. "I'm also pleased by the number of local schools represented ... Virginia State, Norfolk State, Howard University, Hampton University, and so on. I'm excited for them because they have the opportunity to participate in this national event that's so close to home."

As the teams began circulating through the six performance areas spread across exhibit halls B and C of the convention center, Valenzuela offered his interpretation of the host organization's significance as well as its annual showcase of drill and ceremony talent.

"Take a look at what you see around you," he observed. "This is all about reputation and character, which should sound familiar to anyone who understands what actual military service is all about. These teams came here with one agenda ... to win for their company, their command, their school. They're determined to not make mistakes because that would mean letting their teammates down. This is character-building at its best."

The retired general said he "grew up" in ROTC. It was the precursor to a 33-year military career that included command stints in four different infantry divisions, III Corps and U.S. Army South.

"I already feel proud of these cadets regardless of the outcome of this competition," Valenzuela said. "They're wearing the uniform with pride. I feel truly blessed to be here today."

First Sgt James Barrett, the lead NCO for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd United States Infantry Regiment (the Old Guard), Fort Myer, was equally impressed. He and company commander, Capt. Jason Wenger, brought several of their Soldiers - all members of the U.S. Army Drill Team - to the competition to serve as event judges.

"To be honest, I had never heard of the Pershing Rifles group up until a few months ago when I got the invite to participate in the drill meet," said Barrett. "I did some research and was immediately impressed by the organization's history and everything it stands for. It emphasizes teamwork, precision, discipline and the principles of leadership; all of those things we also emphasize in our ranks. And these young folks are reaching a critical point in their lives - graduation, moving on to a military career - where that sort of knowledge is going to make them successful. Thinking about that, I want to be the best mentor I can be while I'm here."

With the competition in full swing, the exhibit hall became a whirlwind of activity. In one corner, an entire platoon of cadets performed a required series of marching moves within a defined area while a pair of students spun, tossed and flipped replica rifles in another. Competitors uncased colors and performed "wagon wheel" turns and counter-column moves in the color guard category. Every event had a time limit and point deductions resulted from the smallest missteps or commands performed out of sequence.

Dinwiddie cadet Katherine Loden, one of few if not the only Fort Lee family member competing, expressed pride as her team completed its first event. "We're all a bit nervous because this is a first for us," she said. "However, we're also confident because we know we earned the right to be here. We put in the practice time just like everybody else. We focused a lot on the basics; how to hold the weapon properly, how to work in unison while performing the marching moves. In a way, this is our reward. We made it here as a team."

Her confidence was well-placed. Dinwiddie walked away with 1st-place trophies in the Blackjack platoon and squad regulation armed drill categories. It placed 2nd in the inspection and color guard categories. Camden Military Academy Blackjack Company A-4 from South Carolina was the overall champion for JROTC. Pershing Rifles Company L-1, University of Toledo, claimed its second overall "National Drill Champions" title among the ROTC teams competing. Pershing Rifles Company C-4, Clemson University (S.C.), placed 2nd, and Pershing Rifles Company M-4, Appalachian State University, N.C., placed 3rd.

To read more about the National Society of Pershing Rifles and its storied history, visit https://theprgroup.org.