This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

West Caldwell High’s Navy Junior ROTC drilled and marched on Wednesday in front of a Navy officer – and parents, friends, administrators and middle-school students. U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows couldn’t make it, but he sent two staffers in his place.

The occasion: The school’s annual military inspection, the 34th to take place at West.

The event is a patriotic one. All its pieces and parts – the strains of “Anchors Aweigh” and “The Star Spangled Banner,” the uniformed cadets filing in, the veterans standing to be recognized, the presentation of the flags, the hands over hearts – feel distinctly American.

But it’s also a chance for the cadets to showcase the skills they’ve been honing since August, said Command Master Chief Petty Officer Wayne Mihelich, an NJROTC instructor at West.The students have been preparing specifically for the inspection for the last month and a half, Mihelich said, but really, the inspection is evidence of a transformation that started at the beginning of the school year – when many students had never drilled or marched in their lives.

“The inspection is for them,” Mihelich said. “It’s so they can show everyone what they can do, what they’ve learned – their bearing, their ability to march, their ability to perform, to be able to take a bunch of kids that are individuals and turn them into a team like this.”

On Wednesday, Commander Gart Jones – the guest inspector – spoke to the students and the crowd, telling the cadets to focus on getting a comprehensive education, not just a military one. If there’s a drill competition and an Algebra II test the next day, he told them, they should “go put that rifle down and study.”

But Jones spoke to the cadets again later, when they addressed them as part of their drill performance. He said it quietly enough that audience members past the front row likely couldn’t hear him:

“Well done.”