It’s a comeback story for the ages.
Mountain Home High School’s NJROTC program celebrated its 30th anniversary on Friday, marking a resounding comeback from a program that was in danger of going under just a few short years ago.
Both current and former members of the high school’s beloved program joined together for a night of fun and remembrance alongside the crew of the USS Arkansas.
During the festivities, MHHS’s NJROTC students ate hotdogs, played a round of football, and put on a drill performance for parents and fellow cadets.
The evening also included an award ceremony by the USS Arkansas, as well as moments of remembrance for former NJROTC cadet Brian Studnar-Griesi and former ROTC instructor David Mayfield.
“This anniversary is a little more sweet,” said Naval Science Instructor Chief Jason Williams. “This unit was almost shut down. We lost Navy funding in 2011 and through good work of the instructors, the cadets and the parents, we’ve been able to stay active. Even without funding. Thanks to the generous school board that funded it, we eventually, this year, have been refunded by the Navy.”
While MHHS’s NJROTC program may have been on the brink of going under a few years ago, the same can’t be said today.
Underneath Chief Williams and NJROTC Commander Allan Hale, who joined the program this year after finishing his naval career as the executive officer onboard the USS Bremerton, the program has exploded to 155 members, making it one of the largest NJROTC programs in the state of Arkansas.
Hale credited Chief Williams for bringing the program back to life during a presentation Friday evening.
“I just got here in July, so all of the success can be contributed to the instructors that came before me, especially Chief Williams who revitalized the program,” Hale said.
After joining the program in 2021, Chief Williams quickly began implementing new programs for the cadets who were still enrolled in Mountain Home’s NJROTC programs.
One of those programs included the Droneaggedon competition, which is part of a larger strategy to get young high schoolers interested in flying drones. A former drone pilot for the Navy himself, Williams created the program to help cadets obtain their recreational and commercial drone licenses while in the program.
A commercial drone license opens up several job opportunities to students, who could potentially see themselves landing jobs in the $60,000 to $90,000 range after obtaining their license.
Students who take the commercial license exam will have to study topics like airspace classification and operating requirements, flight restrictions affecting small, unmanned aircraft operations, and radio communication procedures.
The cost for the recreational license is $5, and an easier quiz is required. A drug screening is required for both licenses.
Since implementing the program, Williams has also placed an emphasis on helping students prepare to enter college and the military after graduating from high school.
A total of 73 cadets were in the program at the end of 2021.
That number would shoot higher in 2022, before reaching a grand total of 122 students by the Oct. 1 first cut-off. During that time cadets in the program have clocked in over 1,200 hours of after-school practice, as well as 4,200 hours of volunteer community service in the Twin Lakes Area.
Cadets have also been able to visit various colleges while participating in the program, including trips to the University of Arkansas, Arkansas State University and the University of Missouri. Cadets also visited military bases such as Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth Texas, Fort Chaffee, Camp Clark and Fort Leonard Wood.
The program received its second “Distinguished Unit” title in April of this year.
“It’s what these cadets have done,” Williams said. “They get out there. They recruit. They come to practice. They try hard to represent the unit and they hold each other accountable. Everything we’re celebrating tonight, and the fact that we are refunded and not completely shut down, is all thanks to the cadets.”
While Chief Williams helped breathe new life into the program, Commander Hale has also stepped up to the plate by securing a sponsorship from the Commanding Officer of the USS Arkansas, which is expected to begin its service to the nation in 120 months, after completing its construction and trial phases.
The partnership will offer students new experiences and opportunities for mentorship with sailors who are currently serving in the U.S. Navy.
USS Arkansas Commanding Officer Vincent “Adam” Kahnke and members of his crew joined cadets at the program’s 30th birthday celebration to officially adopt MHHS’s NJROTC program underneath their wings.
“Having demonstrated your commitment to the United States of America and the United States Navy, by having demonstrated consistent, superior performance within your unit and having graciously accepted the ship and the crew of the USS Arkansas as friends and fellow waters, I proudly adopt Mountain Home Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps as our official unit and certify that you are designated as honorary silent travelers given this day onboard USS Arkansas,” said Kahnke during an official award ceremony Friday evening.