Photo: Zuleika Herrera Rodriguez

The Riverhead NJROTC unit started off the new year with vacancies in both the Naval Science Instructor and Senior Naval Science Instructor positions due to resignations. Riverhead has just hired a new Senior Naval Science Instructor, Commander David Chiaro and we cadets extend the commander a warm welcome.

But despite the initial deficit, the program remained strong thanks to two ROTC Instructors hired as leave replacements,  Darien Riley and Zachary Morales — and the cadets themselves. 

Neither meets the criteria for a permanent Naval Science Instructor position. A candidate for the position of Naval Science Instructor must be a member of the Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard and have had at least 20 years of active duty service, and usually, must be retired or approved for retirement benefits. In addition, Senior Naval Science Instructors must have at least a bachelor’s degree, and Naval Science Instructors must have at least an associate’s degree. 

But these requirements have no relation to how well the unit functions or its value to the cadets.

The Riverhead unit is not run by instructors. It is run by the cadets. Without the cadets who put their entire heart and soul into NJROTC, the unit would cease to exist. The cadets of Riverhead NJROTC work night and day to ensure that the unit thrives, and thus it has achieved the designation of Distinguished Unit with academic excellence for the fifth consecutive year and has nominated several past cadets who received scholarships to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis as well as other distinguished military academies.

Despite the difficulties in finding candidates to fill instructor positions, the Riverhead unit’s cadets will achieve the level of excellence again this year and would have done so even under the leadership of the temporary, although very qualified, instructors.

As a cadet who has been with the unit for four years and who has gone through five different instructors, some more ‘officially’ qualified than the others, I have more than enough reason to say that every instructor is different in their own way. While some were better than others, I can say with certainty that Mr. Riley and Mr. Morales brought life to this unit in a way that no other ‘certified’ instructor could. The situation these men were thrown into was a dilemma no single other teacher in the district could have handled in the way they did. They handled it thoroughly and calmly while bringing the cadets back up after being abandoned by their senior naval science instructor, who they thought would be in the unit for years to come.  The blow was made worse because, the previous SNSI joined their rival school Mattituck High School. 

Being a cadet in this unit has opened my eyes to what being a teacher really means. The certifications for ROTC instructors are meaningless compared to having a passion to teach and learn. All it takes to create a future for a kid is one teacher, who demonstrates this passion. For a cadet, both Riley and Morales were gifts sent from the heavens; I couldn’t ask for anything more from these two men, who gave me my most successful and happiest year in NJROTC.

Riley, a Marine Corps veteran with six years of service, worked as a security guard in the district. He is a graduate of Riverhead’s NJROTC program. He is aware of the ins and outs of the unit and has already laid the foundation for success for the cadets. 

“Sergeant Riley has been a blessing to our unit. It’s easy to see that he wants the best for us, and is willing to do anything in order to keep things normal for the cadets and to give us the best experience he can give,” Victoria Arm, the training officer of the NJROTC unit, told me. 

Morales is a substitute teacher for the Riverhead District and has subbed for the NJROTC classes prior to being named leave replacement instructor. While he doesn’t meet the military service obligation required of official instructors, he has plenty of military knowledge, with a brother ay the SUNY Maritime Academy. Morales had an immediate rapport with the cadets, expecting nothing but the best with his fantastic saying, “Do it again, but better.” I myself had Mr. Morales as an extended substitute in October- December of 2021 for my psychology class. My attitude toward that class changed overnight with Morales as my teacher. My classmates and I felt appreciated and accepted, something most other teachers fail to understand and achieve. He made us feel like something other than students. 

“The work Mr. Morales and Mr. Riley have put in has been so meaningful to the unit. Without their help, we could not have started off the year as great as we did. Mr. Morales has put in countless hours just to make our lives that much easier. He cares about the cadets and it shows,” said Operations Officer Simon Solarz, who is fourth in command. 

Riverhead NJROTC cadets holding memorial banners at Ground Zero,Sept. 25 for the Tunnels to Towers event. Photo: Zuleika Herrera Rodriguez

On Sept. 25, the cadets awoke at the early hour of 3 a.m. to depart via bus to New York City, for the annual “Tunnels To Towers” event. The cadets arrived approximately at 7 a.m. near Ground Zero. Along with other cadets from various schools, they grabbed banners memorializing the lives lost during the tragic events of 9/11. The cadets then stood on the path of Stephen Siller who laid down his life and ran from the Battery Tunnel to the Twin Towers. The cadets stood there proudly until 12 noon and cheered on some 50,000 individuals, some who were injured and some who had family lost during the events of 9/11. These cadets were accompanied by Zachary Morales and they showed nothing but the utmost respect for the victims of one of the most tragic days in American history.

Attending this event is just one of the ways these cadets were able to show their dedication, not only to their unit but to their country. I was also at this event and it was nothing but enjoyment, having Mr. Morales there made it even better. Furthermore, he had a brother in the SUNY Maritime Academy who he cheered for in the run. I watched him as his brother passed by and his pure passion and love were clear. I felt proud to have Morales as an instructor and I felt proud to be in NJROTC.  

The leadership shown by Zachary Morales and Darien Riley inspires these cadets and proves to them that no matter the adversity they face, they will make it through. This unit did not get weaker —  it got stronger, and will continue to get stronger with or without the help of “official” instructors. 

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