They know the drill: NJROTC programs give high-schoolers important life lessons

01/14/2014 5:30 PM

01/14/2014 7:38 PM

UP, down. UP, down. UP, down.

It’s well before sunrise on a recent frigid Monday morning, but things are heating up in the hallway outside Shawnee Mission North’s gym, in front of the high school’s trophy case.

Fifteen students, situated atop thin black mats arranged in a neat sequence, concentrate on the rhythmic cadence roaring from a tape recorder.

Down, UP! Down, UP! Down, UP!

Boys and girls bounce up and down, down and up on each mat, hands folded to chests, struggling to top their personal best in a familiar grueling drill.

Each student’s feet are held down by another’s knees, military-style, as five minutes of sustained situps ticks by.

Underneath the rumble of the loud and steady pace-setting calls, numbers are announced and encouragement is urgently offered as the student teams progress through the physical challenge.

92. 87. 72. 105.

“Go, Autumn.” “Jake, you’re doing it.” “Jose, push!”

Chief Warrant Officer Dennis Grayless, head of Shawnee Mission North’s Junior Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or NJROTC, walks the row of students. His exact title is Senior Naval Science Instructor.

His demeanor is no-nonsense drill sergeant at this early hour of the day.

Students splayed on the mats gasp for air, eyes squeezed shut, faces frozen in tight grimaces.

Grayless alternately monitors a stopwatch and scans a clipboard with each student’s name and the previous week’s situp results.

“C’mon Shane!” “Zach, how many?” “Keep working!”

Suddenly the singsong cadence pumping through the boom box stops and Grayless shouts in a booming voice, “BONUS MINUTE! GO!”

Autumn Coleman, the unit’s lieutenant and third-highest ranking officer, has abandoned the drill and lies silent on her mat.

Jake Buchanan, the unit’s executive officer and second in command, is a blur as he completes 313 situps.

Down the line, Autumn’s brother, Caleb, clocks in with 317 consecutive situps — only eight shy of the 325 situps he did to help the Shawnee Mission North NJROTC boys team win during an early November dual meet in Springfield.

The mats are askew. The students, breathing heavily, recover in a split-second cool-down mode.

A janitor appears through a doorway, pushing a trash can, glancing sideways at the scene.

Grayless peers at the panting group over glasses perched on his nose.

“OK, young Americans, switch. Let’s see what the rest of you can do.”

After the second group concludes situps, the kids go into pushups and then launch into an eight-minute run on the gym’s perimeter.

Grayless stands in the middle of the gym, keeping an eagle’s-eye watch on the 30 students running laps. He cajoles some of the stragglers into stepping up their form.

“C’mon, young Americans,” he said, shaking his head. “Run like you mean it! Boy, you’ve got the Mondays.”

Following the 90-minute athletic practice session, the cadets swap sweaty workout clothes for civilian attire and file into Grayless’ trophy-decorated classroom.

The retired Marine, sporting a close-cropped buzz cut, leads students in a 40-minute rat-a-tat review of the Cadet Field Manual for final exams before the freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors scatter for their regular classes.

Tomorrow the unit will reassemble in the school’s gym at 0600 sharp to continue practice drills in preparation for competition and later in the morning, take finals.

Outside the sun rises in a blood-red sky.

Fellow Shawnee Mission North students are just arriving on campus.

Welcome to a day in the life of NJROTC.


The NJROTC program at Shawnee Mission North, which includes 18 students from Shawnee Mission Northwest, is one of the most celebrated units in the country. Since 2011 they have held the title of National Athletics Champions and are ranked fifth overall in the nation.

A gigantic black-and-red banner proclaiming the unit as champs hangs at the high school’s gym and is at least three times larger than many of the Indians’ athletic signs occupying the walls.

Leading to Grayless’ classroom above the gym are more banners dating to 2006, the first year he took 82 members of Shawnee Mission North’s NJROTC program to Pensacola, Fla., for the annual Navy Nationals Meet.

“We have 148 kids this year, and our unit is one of 25 out of 611 in the country that will compete in early spring,” said Grayless, who is sitting in the training room off the gym, eating a bagel and cream cheese in between athletic drills and the beginning of the academics portion of the day.

“But the winning tradition goes back before my time.”

In front of Grayless is a large to-go cup of coffee — a familiar object he totes around. He likes coffee, but also needs a jolt of caffeinated fuel since he begins each day at 3:30 a.m. with a brisk workout.

“I’m a very competitive person,” Grayless said. “The Marines taught me discipline. Not everyone thinks the way I think, which can be frustrating. I want kids to buy what I’m selling and that just doesn’t happen 100 percent of the time.”

It may come as a surprise, but what Grayless and Shawnee Mission North NJROTC Chief Chris Neven, a retired Navy man and a former NJROTC student in Titusville, Fla., in 1967, want for the kids in the program isn’t necessarily a military career.

“We’re giving them a bigger view of themselves in this world,” said Grayless. “It’s not all about them: It’s about teamwork. That’s life.”

Grayless joined Shawnee Mission North on Oct. 3, 2005, only three days into his retirement after serving a quarter-century in the U.S. Marine Corps.

In addition to heading the NJROTC program, he stepped into the role of the Shawnee Mission North Indians football coach in 2010 — a position he relinquished in 2012 after the team experienced three losing seasons.

“It was the right thing to do,” said Grayless, now an assistant football coach at Olathe South. “I wasn’t getting the job done, and I wanted them to have every opportunity to win.”

Grayless constantly uses that get-it-done attitude as a teaching tool for his young NJROTC charges. He imparts character traits of responsibility, accountability and selflessness — values Grayless not only regards as tenets for living a good life, but also strives to observe on a daily basis.

Admittedly, though, Grayless said it is a process of progress, not perfection.

“I always point out to students examples in my own life where maybe I didn’t hold the highest standards I learned at boot camp in San Diego in 1981,” said Grayless. “I explain it’s OK to make mistakes, accept it and move forward, but learn and don’t put yourself in a situation like that again.”

When the Shawnee Mission North NJROTC squadron competes in the national championships — which will be held virtually this year, because of the budget sequester in Washington D.C. — the students perform in drill, athletics, academics and inspection categories.

“There are five drill events, four athletic events, an academic test and the personnel inspection,” said Grayless. “It’s rigorous.”

Overall the Shawnee Mission North NJROTC program’s Navy Nationals Meet competitive record since 2006 is an impressive 503 wins and 57 losses.

In 2006 Shawnee Mission North NJROTC qualified for nationals and finished 21st overall; in 2007 the group finished first in drill, claimed the title of National Drill Champions and finished fifth overall. In 2008 the students finished seventh overall and in 2009, Grayless led them to the No. 1 berth in drill when they were named National Drill Champions, finishing third overall in the nation.

The winning streak continued in 2010, with the team finishing first in drill, grabbing the title of National Drill Champions and finishing second overall. In 2011 Shawnee Mission North NJROTC finished fifth overall and in 2012, the team finished first in athletics, earning the title of National Athletic Champions, finishing fifth overall.

“This year we finished first in athletics again, claiming the title of National Athletic Champions, and right now are ranked fifth overall,” said Grayless.

What’s the secret to the multiple, consistent wins that allow Shawnee Mission North NJROTC to dominate the field?

“Discipline, dedication, commitment,” said Grayless, polishing off the bagel and gulping down a last sip of coffee before bounding upstairs to begin academics drills in his small classroom.

“Hard work, hard, hard, HARD work,” he emphasized.


Across Johnson County, at Shawnee Mission West, Grayless’ counterpart reflects on the impact the NJROTC program has on kids of the 21st century.

“One of my biggest challenges is working with students who think they should be given everything,” said Lieutenant Commander Sheldon Vasquez, a retired member of the Navy and head of the Shawnee Mission West Vikings NJROTC.

Vasquez has led the program at Shawnee Mission West for 10 years. This year he has 145 members, comprised of students from Shawnee Mission West, East and South. Approximately two-thirds are boys, which is in line with the national average.

“Redirecting a freshman’s thinking to be a good follower and then transitioning that mindset into one of a leader as they mature is rewarding to watch,” said Vasquez. “Students successful in the program manage to earn a leadership role, and transpose a template of work and self-reliance into their life in general.”

The Shawnee Mission School District established its NJROTC program in 1968; the Shawnee Mission North and Shawnee Mission West programs are the only ones in Johnson County.

“Our goal here at SMW is to gain a seat at the Navy Nationals Meet like Shawnee Mission North,” said Vasquez, “but we haven’t done that the past several years.”

One of Vasquez’s joys is in watching the effects that NJROTC principles have on a troubled student.

“By no means is the struggling student the only one who enrolls in the program,” said Vasquez. “We have kids covering the spectrum, from those barely hanging on in school to graduates who go onto the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. But the student trying to find themselves in life who gains that foothold through NJROTC is one of my greatest rewards.”

And like Grayless, Vasquez isn’t concerned about whether or not a student ultimately enlists in the military.

“We don’t recruit,” he said. “In many cases, joining the military wouldn’t be a good fit for a student. We teach lifelong lessons that can be applied regardless of a future job or career.”


On a recent Saturday morning, hundreds of students from six regional high school NJROTC programs descend on Shawnee Mission North’s Field House for an athletics competition.

Cadets cluster around stations designated for pushups, situps, pull-ups and relays.

The gym reverberates with cheers and the occasional guttural “OohRah!” uttered by Grayless, who strides between activities, one eye on a stopwatch, the other watching the room’s organized chaos.

He pauses in front of kids stretched out on mats who are poised for situps. The clock begins and Autumn Coleman is among the group doing the repetitive up, down, up down.

Time is called and teammate and friend Kaytlyn Tiemann hugs Coleman.

“Great, you did 114!”

The two girls wander off to have their picture taken. They enlisted in the Marines within days of each other last July and are scheduled to report to boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., on July 14.

After posing for a photo and snapping a selfie on their cellphones, Coleman and Tiemann are content to watch other students in the throes of competition.

“I joined NJROTC because it was an elective, and my mom suggested it,” said Coleman. “Honestly, I didn’t know if I would like it. But it grew on me.”

Coleman thrives on the leadership aspect of the program.

“NJROTC is really about the fundamentals of life,” she said. “Coach Grayless always says every day isn’t your wedding day — there are some things in life you just don’t like, or that don’t go your way. But you have to do it.”

Coleman, who wants to pursue a double major of journalism and broadcasting and eventually work in military public affairs, regards Grayless’ passion for teaching students about something outside the general material taught in classrooms as inspirational.

“He wakes up just like us, with the same problems and victories,” said Coleman. “And he always strives to be his best. That makes me want to do my best in everything, too.”

Behind the scenes, Coleman’s mother, Trish, along with other students’ parents, organizes a chili-dog lunch for the participants.

“I enrolled in SMN NJROTC in 1978,” she said. “It’s a program that keeps you grounded as a young adult, helps you in school. It’s awesome.”

Trish’s husband, Dan, left the Navy with an honorable discharge.

“I didn’t realize Autumn would take to it like she did,” Trish said. “And Caleb. I’m a lucky mom. ROTC is a driving force of positivity in kids’ lives.”


Grayless isn’t bashful about his expectations; they’re high.

There’s a good reason why the Shawnee Mission North NJROTC program is celebrating a perfect season record of 18-0.

Perseverance, persistence and discipline, courtesy of the bar that Grayless sets. This semester the group plans to work toward qualifying in the Regional Championship.

Grayless is tough, has a thundering bark and doesn’t suffer fools gladly — but his smile is just as quick as his criticism.

“Part of this NJROTC experience is camaraderie, a sense of brotherhood,” said Grayless, who often treats seniors to lunch or a barbecue at his home with wife Celia. “We’re a family, and all families have growing pains and make errors.”

But the almost 150 kids who make up Shawnee Mission North NJROTC, including 17-year-old Jake Buchanan, have a healthy level of respect for their leader.

Buchanan maintains a 3.75 GPA and has played football and basketball and run cross-country and track. In addition, Buchanan, who is considering attending the University of Kansas next fall to study architectural engineering or physiology, also sits on the Shawnee Mission North Site Council with a handful of other students and community leaders.

“I joined NJROTC my freshman year, when I worked with Coach Grayless during football,” said Buchanan. “I like the team concept — we’re a family, we depend on each other, even in the difficult times.”

Buchanan acknowledges he was a cocky person at one point in his life.

“Being in this program and listening to and watching Coach Grayless has taught me how to be a young man,” he said. “It’s taught me how to be there for others.”

Richard Kramer, Shawnee Mission North principal, credits the award-winning Shawnee Mission North NJROTC program with turning out kids such as Buchanan.

“This program gives students invaluable pointers on how to live a successful life,” said Kramer. “These students embody character and respect and have a sense of community.”


Back in the windowless classroom, before Grayless begins quizzing students about details from the Cadet Field Manual, he has a surprise for Cadet Alissa Seckar, a Shawnee Mission Northwest freshman and first-year member of Shawnee Mission North NJROTC.

Like most of Grayless’ lessons, this one is intended to teach something relevant to his students.

“OK, young Americans, it’s the holidays and you’re spending them with family and friends in a place you know, getting gifts and having a good time,” he said, his gravelly voice filling up the classroom crowded with desks.

“But we have to remember the men and women in the armed services who won’t be at home, who are in a foreign land, serving our country.”

Some kids yawn and fidget; others devote full attention to Grayless, who clutches a cup of coffee.

“The young man I’m about to introduce didn’t think he’d be home for the holidays,” continued Grayless. “But he’s here, back from serving in Afghanistan.”

A uniformed solider walks into the room and Seckar’s eyes widen. She jumps up to embrace her 21-year-old cousin, Kaleb Bryant, on leave for the holiday.

“That’s enough to make even an old Marine’s eyes moist,” chuckled Grayless, clearly enjoying the emotion-packed moment.

But the break from disciplined study is over almost as quickly as it began.

“OK, knuckleheads,” Grayless clears his throat, picks up his notes and rapid-fires questions.

“Caleb, who is Commander-in-Chief?”

“Sir, The Honorable Mr. Obama,” responded Caleb.

“What’s the first General Order of the Navy, Cody?”

Cody Bennett, a freshman cadet who arrived late in the morning after news his pet dog would have to be euthanized later in the day and was gently comforted by his peers, answered in a strong voice.

“Sir, to take charge of this post and all government property in view.”

At the end of the hour the cadets rush out of the room on their way to other classes and activities at Shawnee Mission North and Northwest.

Before they leave Grayless’ area of command, however, they all pass underneath a sign bearing one of the Chief Warrant Officer’s favorite sentiments.

“Train like a warrior, compete like a champion, love like a family.”

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