By Nathan Rolfe
I knew from the beginning of high school that the military was in my future. Both my grandfather and father served in the Navy during World War II and Vietnam respectively and I felt a strong desire to serve as well. Halfway through my junior year, a friend was telling me about the great weekend he had as part of a military youth program. I was instantly interested and went with him to the next meeting. It was then that I was introduced to the Sea Cadet program and I joined the C.W. Nimitz Squadron out of Arlington Heights, Illinois. The local Recruit Training was at Great Lakes where I got as real of a Navy experience as possible. Just three days after Great Lakes, I was on a plane for San Diego and spending two weeks aboard the USS Fort McHenry. I continued with the Sea Cadets through graduation, participating in several other trainings and receiving an invitation to the National Youth Leadership Council on Security and Defense in Washington, DC. I left the Sea Cadet program as a Petty Officer 2nd Class, but that would not be the end of my involvement.
I threw most people for a loop and joined the Army instead of the Navy after high school. Despite wearing a different uniform, I was still drawn to the Sea Cadet program. Within just a few months, I contacted a local unit and began drilling as an adult leader. This would be the beginning of 17 years of support as an adult leader, working in nearly every position available within a unit and supporting several advanced trainings around the country. In 2000, while stationed in Hawaii, I was given my first command of the then Barbers Point Squadron. While my time in Hawaii was somewhat short, it includes one of my favorite memories from the Sea Cadets. In September 2001, only two days before the 9/11 attacks, I had my change of command on the fantail of the USS Missouri.
Like so many others, my military career went in a different direction following the 9/11 attacks. While transitioning from Hawaii, I was diverted to the DC area for what would be an unusually long assignment. After a year of supporting local units in various ways, I eventually settled down with the Central Maryland Corsairs Squadron at Andrews AFB, and assumed command in January 2003. My tenure with the Corsairs lasted nine incredible years of challenges and successes, and most importantly, was filled with awesome adult volunteers and many, many cadets of exceptional character.
I can honestly say that my life and career have been profoundly affected by my participation in the Sea Cadet program. For almost my entire 19 years in the program as a cadet and officer, I have held some sort of leadership position. I cannot say that even of my active duty career. And when the time came for me to assume leadership of Soldiers, I already had several years of experience, and lessons learned, under my belt which I am confident helped me be that much better of a non-commissioned officer in the Army. In an evolving military where the lines between the services are being blurred, I also had a jump start on my peers by having almost equal exposure to the sea services as I did the Army. I will admit however, that my loyalties were fiercely divided once a year during the annual Army-Navy game. Go team!
Today, I am an officer in the Naval Reserve (yes, I finally went into the Navy). Without a doubt, that would not be the case but for my involvement in the Sea Cadets. I received my commission through the Navy’s Direct Commission program, which at the time was unique to the Naval Reserve for a select few career fields. I learned about this program from a fellow Sea Cadet officer, who had also been in the Army. Without that connection, there’s no telling what my military career would look like now, if it even existed at all.
My favorite aspect of the Sea Cadet program has been the cadets themselves. I have had the privilege of training and working with hundreds of cadets over the years. Many have gone into military service themselves, or on to successful civilian careers in various industries. There is no greater feeling than receiving an email or phone call from a former cadet and hearing about the positive impact the Sea Cadet program has had in their lives.
I have even had to work through the mixed feelings of losing former cadet Pfc. Kevin Wessell, U.S. Army, who while deployed to Iraq in 2005, was killed in action while protecting the lives of his entire platoon. Every time I am at National Headquarters, I take a moment to reflect as I look at his picture on the wall of honor there.
I have also returned to the program that has been such a large part of my life with membership in the NSCC Alumni Association. In January 2015, I assumed the role as president of that organization and I am looking forward to working with a great group of former cadets and officers (and some current adult leaders) as we work to give back to the Sea Cadet program and support the thousands of cadets all around the country. After more than two decades with the Sea Cadet program, I have only one regret: I wish I knew about it sooner.