Fifteen children shifted in their ranks, at attention and under inspection in their middle-school gym Wednesday afternoon. The boys and lone girl didn’t wear uniforms, instead keeping their rectangular rifle-bearing formation in gym shorts and T-shirts.
“Pin your elbows in. It’ll look better,” advised a commanding officer of sorts, one of three high school boys in sharp-pressed Navy blues. The trio roved the middle-school squad, adjusting arms and grips, aligning dud rifles at 45-degree angles, gesturing and joking.
From the gym’s corner watched the real man-in-charge, a 65-year-old veteran tasked with introducing the military mindset to scores of students at Cary High School.
Col. Thomas Finnerty had little to say as his cadets commanded: He has built a group well-oiled and loyal enough, he hopes, to sustain its course when he hangs up his olive-drab uniform this month, ending a 44-year career in uniform. For the last 16 years, Finnerty has risen at 4:30 a.m. and headed toward the underbelly of Cary High School, where he runs what amounts to a miniature military school, complete with its own textbooks and daily drills.
Since Finnerty founded the Cary High unit in 1996, the school has won a Best in Nation designation four times, meaning it was one of 11 Navy Jr. ROTC units selected from among 600-plus nationwide for good academics, volunteerism and training.
As Finnerty leaves, he sees a changing landscape for his young cadets, with military budgets shrinking as American troops leave Afghanistan. But the shifts in the military haven’t undermined Finnerty’s long-standing training regimen. Under the colonel, about 150 students each year shoot, spin rifles, present colors, study military history and volunteer.
Outside his office, a Wall of Heroes lists a few dozen of the more than a hundred students who have taken the colonel’s lessons on to the military
In all, about 20 percent of the unit will go on to an armed service, compared to about five percent of all N.C. high school students last school year. The colonel’s mission, he says, is to build leaders, not indoctrinate them.
“There’s not an expectation that kids go in the service. They learn about the service,” said Finnerty, whose salary is paid half-each by the U.S. Navy and the Wake County Public School System. “I’m much more interested in them finding a focus that they want to do.”
He teaches a philosophy of loyalty and service. He left college and volunteered for military service in 1967 as the Vietnam War entered its peak, feeling it a service he owed, in part to the friends whose funerals he had already attended.
“ ‘The country’s at war. I’m the right age to serve.’ I think I would have felt very guilty if I wouldn’t have done it,” the snow-haired man recalled, adding that a sense of adventure played a role too.
Following a year in Vietnam, he would serve as a trainer on Parris Island, and later a battalion commander of about 700 soldiers. He retired as a commanding officer of the Sixth Marine Corps District, part of the Corps’ recruitment arm.
In the years since the Vietnam War, Finnerty’s youthful sense of duty has expanded into a broader philosophy. By joining the military, he says, young people aren’t pledging allegiance to a particular cause or conflict, but instead becoming a tool of American democracy.
Finnerty sees his unit as an introduction to that idea and as a training ground for his students’ next steps in life. The cadets attend school in uniform on Thursdays; some drill for hours after school on many days, and most volunteer at school and community events on weekends and nights. In a way, Finnerty says, the pseudo-military outfit is a catch-all for students who otherwise wouldn’t have a connection to the school.
“The colonel is my biggest influence. He puts you in a position where you have to lead cadets,” said Brian Schmid, 17, a rising senior whose blazer is weighted with silvery ropes and rows of striped honors.
One recent NJROTC graduate made it through high school with financial assistance from the unit, which gave some of its fundraising money so the cadet could shower at a local gym. Another went on to Duke University with an ROTC scholarship.
“You don’t have to walk in the door as a ninth-grader having played football for five years. You don’t have to know how to play a tuba or a trombone or a trumpet,” said Finnerty, himself a father of three. “The proudest moments are not when someone gets selected for the Naval Academy ... but when you get the kid who probably wouldn’t have graduated.”
The colonel is unsure how the path for new recruits will change with funding cuts and a shifting military mission in the years after his retirement. But the military’s discipline and structure will continue to attract and shape young people.
Molefi Henderson, 13, isn’t sure whether his interest will go beyond the Salem Middle School ROTC club. But the message from his father and grandfather had him drilling in the gymnasium. “They said it taught them to be a man.”