Sounding off in El Segundo

By Josh Grossberg, April 3, 2005

Everybody got yelled at.

Thousands of students from 50 high schools descended on El Segundo for the annual West Coast National Junior ROTC Drill Competition on Saturday. They marched, spun rifles, waved flags and sooner or later came face to face with a Marine drill sergeant in the Raytheon parking lot, who would press his nose to their frozen faces and scream.

“Oh my God! Could you possibly iron that shirt?” “Did you shine your shoes with a Hershey bar?”

While Marine Staff Sgt. Robert Britt grimaced, hopped on one foot and rolled his eyes, cadets like Hawthorne High School student Michael Whitehead stared straight ahead. He knew it was just part of the ritual.

“That was pretty cool,” he said after hearing the riot act. “It’s just fun. It’s a game.” While he seemed plenty menacing, Britt said his antics were a way to test a cadet’s mettle. “It’s to make sure they don’t lose their bearing and can handle stress,” said Britt, who admitted that all cadets got the treatment, no matter how perfectly dressed they were.

The yearly event — the Super Bowl of JROTC drill meets — attracted students from across the West Coast and as far away as Alabama. They were judged in a variety of events that tested their precision, bearing, appearance and knowledge. The tests came after spending the night in tents outside the sprawling Raytheon campus.

Joshua M.R. Robinson, a 17-year-old Redondo Union High School student, was the cadet in charge of the whole affair. He said the event is a chance for kids to hone the skills they’ve learned in their JROTC programs at school.

“It gives cadets a chance to work as a team and accomplishing a mission under pressure,” said Joshua, who will be attending West Point in the fall.

And, he said, it’s also a chance to meet kids from other schools with similar interests.

“It’s just fun to compete in something this big,” he said. While the cadets were put through their paces, family and spectators wandered, played video games, flew in flight simulators, climbed portable mountains and met with recruiters from different branches of the armed forces.

While the mood was bright, there were somber moments. Just after a stealth bomber few overhead, it was announced that the pope had died. And the event was held in honor of Sean Lee Brock, a Marine from Redondo Beach who was killed in Iraq in February.

“It’s sad, but I know his spirit is with us,” said his brother, Rayme Brock. JROTC doesn’t hold an allure for everybody, said 16-year-old Banning High School student David Lopez. “It’s something you have to love to do,” he said. “I love everything about it. I even like getting yelled at. It’s the adrenaline. You get a big rush.”

By the end of the day, Sgt. Britt’s voice was raw from all the screaming. But he said it’s something you get used to after a while.

“The kids don’t know it,” he said, “but I try to have a good time.”