A cadet out of place or out of sync can loom large in the eyes of the judges at a high school drill team meet. During the 2015 Army Nationals in Kentucky on Saturday, the judging panel saw students from Airport High School overcome not just a simple error but a malfunction that could have cost them their eventual eighth overall place.
Airport High was one of 80 teams at the weekend competition and was coming off the heels of its first 4th Brigade Best of the Best championship. Things were continuing to go the Golden Talons’ way until the armed color guard segment of the Army Nationals.
The color guard’s long hours of practice helped them press on after a flag malfunction. (photo provided)
Cadet Lt. Col. Alyssa Whetstone, color guard commander and the school’s cadet battalion commander, recalls that the cadets were more than ready to showcase their precision.
“We were confident that we would do flawlessly … We practiced this event so much we could do it blind if we needed to (and) little did we know that in that moment we would have to,” she said.
The routine went smoothly in the opening moments until Cadet 1st Lt. Robert Sturkie, the state flag guard, and Cadet Sgt. Maj. Edwin Torres, the American flag guard, began to take off the flag covers as Whetstone had commanded. Whetstone quickly realized the American flag she carries was partially detached and moving on its pole. Since it wasn’t secure, the flag was in risk of touching the ground, an offense worthy of disqualification.
“It came loose at the worst possible time,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Harry Ferguson, the school’s JRTOC unit commander.
Torres said he could sense the entire group calculating what they needed to do next to save the routine.
“I was thinking that we were disqualified and it was over. But I told myself that we had to finish strong and push through the struggle,” Sturkie said.
Whetstone adjusted her stance to raise the flag higher and proceeded along with Cadet Maj. Christian Hickox, the state flag bearer.
“I thought to myself ‘the show must go on’,” she said.
Whetstone’s view soon was obstructed by the flag, which slid in front of her face, but she continued to call out commands. When it was time to order the colors, a command that would bring the flag perilously close to the ground, the Golden Talons were once again in danger of being disqualified.
“I told Whetstone ‘I got your back’,” Torres said.
The color guard members talk strategy before their event. (photo provided)
Trusting in her teammate, Whetstone gave the command, and Torres moved his weapon with one arm and simultaneously reached out his left hand to swoop up the flag and hold it high. He couldn’t stand at proper parade rest while holding the flag, but he saved the team from losing all of their points for that event.
“The flag touching the floor may seem trivial to some, (but) ask any of the cadets, servicemen or judges, it is definitely not trivial,” said Torres’ mother, Felicia, who works at Airport High in the guidance department.
“I take great pride in (my) country and would have done the same thing,” Sturkie said.
During the after-action report, judges commended Torres for “keeping good military bearing” and doing the job of a guard to protect the flag. Ferguson said he thinks the sacrifice cadets made to practice during their spring break was one reason they reacted so well under pressure.
“My mind went blank but the muscle memory from countless hours of practice let me perform the remainder of the event without needing to think,” Hickox said.
Ferguson said judges initially ranked Airport High as one of the top five color guards at the Army Nationals and that it was equipment, not performance, that led to their score in the top 30.
“I’ve never seen (a flag detach) in my 16 years,” he said. “It’s amazing they were able to perform.”
Whetstone said the top-30 finish was “more memorable than any first place trophy we’ve ever gotten.”
“I will always be thankful to Sturkie, Hickox and especially Torres for being there when I needed them most. They truly are an amazing color guard and amazing teammates,” she said.
The Golden Talons placed second in exhibition unarmed, second in squad exhibition without arms and fourth in squad exhibition with arms.
Airport High next will compete at the National High School Drill Team Championships, or the “Super Bowl” of drill team meets, featuring groups from all over the country and all branches of service. Ferguson said Airport High is poised to do well in the competition, held from May 2 to May 4, after beating last year’s overall runner-up at the recent Army Nationals.
“We will definitely check the flags before starting the routine,” Torres said.