The Great Place hosted nearly 500 Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets for the second annual Fort Hood JROTC Skills Meet on Saturday at Abrams Physical Fitness Center.

The event, which was first held last March, is organized through the Adopt-A-School Program and Child and Youth Services to give area JROTC programs another opportunity to compete during the school year.

This year, the event was expanded to include more than just Killeen-area schools – five schools from the Dallas-Fort Worth area traveled down for the competition. A total of 10 schools competed this year – Killeen High School, Shoemaker High School, Ellison High School, Harker Heights High School, Copperas Cove High School, Arlington Heights High School, Burleson High School, Centennial High School, R. L. Paschal High School and Eastern Hills High School.

The JROTC cadets competed in seven events – armed and unarmed drill, male/co-ed and female color guard, air rifle marksmanship, physical fitness and an academic challenge.

“Well over 100” volunteers helped make the day happen, said school liaison officer for Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation, and Child and Youth Services Christine Hall, from set up and tear down to escorting schools around an unfamiliar military installation to judging the individual events.

The 1st Medical Brigade, 13th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, Warrior Transition Unit and a few other units helped assist Hall and CYS with putting the event together over the past few months and running it on Saturday.

During the opening remarks in the morning, Garrison Commander Col. Todd Fox encouraged the students from the 10 different schools to get to know each other and get to know the JROTC programs tied to other branches of the military.

“If you’re in the Army program, go ahead and talk to the JV guys in the Navy uniforms,” he joked, adding, “You guys are going to have to learn more about the service rivalries as you get older.”

Throughout the day, cadets ran through their performances at Abrams, Kieshnick Phsyical Fitness Center, and even did their marksmanship competition at the garden center in the old Post Exchange. Family members, friends and classmates watched and cheered when the drill teams finished their exhibition phases and teammates shouted encouragements to cadets straining to finish with the most pushups and sit ups in the physical fitness test.

Fox and 1st Med. Bde. Command Sergeant Major Command Sgt. Maj. Edward Ellis-Kelsey handed out the trophies and medals for all the events and categories at an awards ceremony at the end of the day.

Celebratory cheers and screams filled the gym as the announcer revealed Killeen High School JROTC as the winner of the meet.

Killeen JROTC instructors Command Sgt. Maj. (Ret.) Arturo Guzman and 1st Sgt. (Ret.) Percy Brown couldn’t have been more proud of their cadets.

“It’s awesome, a lot of hard work and dedication,” Brown said.

“They did a lot to be where they’re at,” Guzman added. “We made some mistakes, but that’s what it’s all about – making mistakes, capitalizing on our small points, work on our weak points and prepare for the state meet next month.”

The instructors said the cadets spend much of their time practicing and honing their skills – five days out of the week, and sometimes even on Saturdays.

“Every day after school, the kids are there,” Guzman said. “And the good thing about it is all the kids, academically (they’re doing well). They work hard.”

Guzman and Brown said they saw their cadets supporting each other and working as a team throughout the day, but that they hadn’t expected to win the overall trophy.

The group of cadets that stood out the most to Brown was the female color guard team, which won in all categories.

“And the other one that (stood out), even though they didn’t win anything, was the female drill team exhibition,” Guzman added. “They brought the house down.”

The Killeen female unarmed drill team was led by senior Tehillah Tavai.

“I feel like we accomplished our main mission,” Tavai said, “which was (for Killeen JROTC) to win overall, and we never would have won it without teamwork and dedication and effort.”

She said that while it was a great experience to spend time with and compete against other schools and programs Killeen JROTC wouldn’t normally meet, she still enjoyed beating their local rivals.

The most nerve-wracking part of the competition was the crowd, she said.

“Trying to please the crowd, trying not to mess up with all those eyes watching us,” she said. “I’d say the crowd was more intimidating than the judges.”

Between the very first event in 2016 and Saturday, many changes were made to the meet, Hall said, including completing “more extensive training with the judges” before the competition.

The Fort Hood USO brought its resources and a van to set up for the cadets to check out in between events. The Armed Services YMCA brought a barbecue and grilled lunch for all the cadets and their Families.

“It added more structure to the event to make it even better than it was last year,” she said of the changes.

As Killeen also swept every marksmanship award, being the only school competing, the competition was still tough. Junior Bradley Dirig finished in first place with an individual score of 266.8, just 0.2 points higher than second place finisher junior Daniel Calderon.

Aside from the unique opportunity to compete in a JROTC skills competition on a military installation, the Fort Hood meet is one of the very few – if any – competitions that don’t have an entry fee. The only overhead cost to the event is the cost of the trophies handed out to the winners, Hall said, and even that cost stays mostly consistent from year-to-year.

Hall said she expects and hopes that the annual event will continue to grow until there is a need to cap the number of schools entered into the competition.

“I think (the future of this event) looks bigger and better every year,” she said. “We laid a great foundation this year with those five schools we had come in from the Fort Worth area, because last year it was just our (local) schools. So, we wanted to expand it, and I think we’ve laid a great foundation for them to go out and basically spread the word.”

Another potential way to draw in more schools to future events is the attraction that comes from an Army installation hosting the competition.

“These events are typically ran by schools … so the fact that we have an installation that is now stepping in and running it or hosting it, it’s phenomenal and it’s unprecedented,” Hall said. “And I hope that it’s going to be a best practice and it’s right along the vision that the installation has, the garrison has, for those community relations.”