Cartersville High School's JROTC program may be in its infancy, but that hasn't stopped its leaders from treating it like it's been around for years.
Before the program was ever launched, senior Army instructor Col. Jeffrey Dickerson and Army instructor Sgt. 1st Class John Snead were already making plans to host the Hurricane Battalion's first-ever Military Ball 2020, which took place Feb. 22 in the school cafeteria.
"Sgt. 1st Class Snead and I scheduled the ball back in June of last year as we were preparing our Hurricane Battalion yearly training calendar," Dickerson said. "We then circulated the date to all who would be involved. We briefed our students on it from the very first week of school and reinforced it every month since August."
The two instructors wanted to host such an event because they served more than 60 years in organizations that "take the time to celebrate their origins and traditions via ceremonies nested within the formal, yet familial, construct of a military ball — or formal dining in/dining out event."
"This event affords all members the opportunity to socialize vertically and horizontally throughout the organization and develop a strong sense of esprit de corps," Dickerson said. "We hoped the cadets would learn how to socialize in a more mature setting while still being able to have fun and be themselves, much like we did growing up through our organizations during our former careers."
The leaders also wanted the cadets, led by battalion commander cadet Lt. Col. Isaiah Davis, to "learn traditions that have purpose and meaning, like the POW/MIA ceremony, the grog bowl ceremony and the art of toasting to those things we feel are important within our culture," Dickerson said.
"We also wanted them to gain the self-confidence to know that they can now go out into the real world and actually function and fit into just such a setting, whether it be in a corporate or military setting," he said.
Dressed in formal attire and dress uniforms, 58 cadets took part in a receiving line; the POW/MIA ceremony, led by cadet Staff Sgts. Cameron Allen and Dalton Ross; toasting and dinner, catered by Johnny Mitchell's Smokehouse; a cake-cutting ceremony; and the grog bowl ceremony, a traditional part of military formal dinners known as dining in — organizational members only with no outside guests — or dining out — organizational members and outside guests.
"The grog bowl ceremony is designed to commemorate the things that the organization holds dear, celebrate heritage and/or recognize shared hardships," Dickerson said, noting their ball was a modified dining out. "Each ingredient of the grog symbolizes one of those commemorative things and is added to the grog, along with a well-spoken explanation of its significance."
After the grog is made, the most-junior member at each table is required to "scoop up some of the grog into a pitcher and then charge the glasses for all guests seated at their table," he said.
"Once everyone has a glass of grog, formal toasts are offered up to the president, the governor, the service, the guests, etc., and everyone takes a sip of grog," he said. "It is typically not a very pleasant or refreshing drink."
Dickerson added their grog was a mixture of red and blue Hawaiian Punch, cola, Oreo cookies, banana peppers, lime juice, salt and Sour Patch Kids.
Publicity officer Theresa Lieblang, a senior, said the grog bowl ceremony was her favorite part of the evening "because I got to pour the salt in on the color guard's behalf."
"I enjoyed listening to the other cadets explain why their team chose their symbolic ingredient," she said.
Cadets who will be graduating this year were able to reveal their post-high school plans during the Senior Walk, and two cadets were honored during the festivities.
Jacob Churchwell won a $300 scholarship for his entry in the Veterans of Foreign Wars' Voice of Democracy Oratorical Essay Contest, and Israel Satterfield received the Commended Canes Award for his embodiment of the word "persistence."
One of the highlights for the cadets was meeting and hearing their guest speaker, Brig. Gen. Randall Simmons, assistant adjutant general of the Georgia Army National Guard.
"We knew we wanted to have a guest speaker who was relevant, dynamic and who cared about the program and the audience," Dickerson said. "We chose Brig. Gen. Randall Simmons because he fit that description."
The colonel said he’s known the Statesboro native for years so he and the cadets were "thrilled, yet not surprised, when he accepted our invitation."
"He and I have been great friends for most of our adult lives, served together on three combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, seen each other’s children born and grown up and shared a common desire to see young people like our students overcome the trials and tribulations that can easily overcome them and eventually be whatever they desire to be in life," he said. "His message about winning and overcoming despite adversity was spot-on for our cadets. The cadets were also awestruck at the opportunity to meet and take photos with a real live general."
Lieblang, daughter of Beverly and David Peyton of Cartersville, said she "loved listening to the general's speech as well as listening to some cadets give speeches and nice words about Col. Dickerson and Sgt. Snead."
After the formal ceremony concluded, the “informal portion” of the 4½-hour ball included dancing “for those cadets who wished to do so” and taking photos with Simmons, Dickerson said.
Students began preparing for the event, which was attended by 130 cadets and guests, in December.
Organizers created and distributed invitations, decided on the menu and assigned cadets to handle various functions such as RSVP management, seating charts, Senior Walk and grog bowl and POW/MIA ceremonies.
“We were exceptionally pleased with how the ball turned out,” Dickerson said. “Everyone involved did a fantastic job, from our caterer, Johnny Mitchell’s Smokehouse, our faculty and administration for their support in helping us with resources and, most notably, our cadets who worked diligently to make it sure it was a huge success.”
Davis, 17, who took Malerie Willbanks as his date, enjoyed his first experience at a military ball.
"It was very formal, glad to be a part of it," the senior said.
Lieblang said she wanted to attend the event to "experience the traditions of a military ball and enjoy a formal evening with my fellow friends and cadets" and called the affair "incredible."
"The ball was everything I expected and more," said the 18-year-old, who was accompanied by her best friend, Katie Cox. "I enjoyed every part of it — the formal ceremony, tears and laughs and the dance itself."
Dickerson said his favorite part of the event was “when it was all over and said and done, perhaps?”
“Honestly, the whole evening was one treat after another, from the amusement of watching our cadets go through a formal receiving line for the first time, awkwardly introducing themselves and their guests, to talking about our seniors and their plans after high school to watching the cadets poignantly speak and perform the various ceremonial events to recognizing their accomplishments and to, perhaps, the most memorable – witnessing their impromptu and surprising, to both Sgt. 1st Class Snead and I, testimonial about how much JROTC has done for and meant to them,” he said. “That part was extraordinarily humbling and touching.”
Davis, son of Jessica Dibernardo and Chris Davis, said one of the best parts for him was being able to "experience the ceremony and be involved in setting the table of how we can improve on things."
"And cutting the cake was awesome, being able to cut it with a saber," he said.
Cadets were encouraged, but not required, to attend the ball, and Dickerson said he expects the number to increase substantially next year “now that the word is out about what a grand event it is.”
“Those who attended very much enjoyed it and look forward to attending next year,” he said. “Those who did not attend lamented that they didn’t and vowed to partake next year.”
He also said some schools don’t allow outsiders to attend their military balls, but he’s glad his unit’s event was open to their supporters.
“I’m of the mindset that just like we did this year, the CHS JROTC ball can be the one time during the year when all the cadets and their entire support network – teachers, parents, administrators, community supporters, etc. – could and should come together to celebrate and recognize what the program represents – young people learning to be better citizens and leaders,” he said.