Greenport High School students might hear the jingle-jangle sound of clashing metal as 17-year-old Kerri Hands walks through the halls.
No, the senior from Orient doesn’t wear bangles or other showy jewelry. She’s is a cadet commander for the Southold-Mattituck-Greenport Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, known as NJROTC. And when Kerri is in uniform, she’s adorned with 16 medals draped over her heart and 26 ribbons below that.
Last week, Kerri chalked up another achievement. She was in her NJROTC class on May 4 when Greenport High School principal Len Skuggevik and superintendent Mike Comanda announced that she’d won the Outstanding Cadet award in the annual statewide All Service NJROTC competition.
“I was in awe,” Kerri said. “I called my mom right away.”
Kerri’s mentor, Major William Grigonis of Southold, who heads the three-school unit, described her recent achievement as “phenomenal.”
“She competed against thousands of applicants,” Maj. Grigonis said. “She’s done so much. She could probably write a book about all of her achievements. Kerri is a ball of energy.”
Maj. Grigonis said Kerri, along with her parents, Billy, owner of Orient Service Center, and Janet, owner of Hillcrest Pet Care, will attend an awards ceremony and parade upstate. The date has yet to be announced.
Kerri’s award also includes a $1,000 scholarship, which she says will come in handy next month. Four days after she graduates from high school, the former Oysterponds Elementary School student will pack up for college. And not just any college.
Kerri, who has a 3.8 GPA, plays field hockey, runs track and was student council vice president last year, was nominated by Congressman Tim Bishop and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
Kerri attributes her success to Maj. Grigonis and the unit’s two instructors, Senior Chief Petty Officer Charles Turner and his wife, Petty Officer 1st Class Felicity Turner.
“They each have different teaching styles and that has helped me to develop my own style of leadership,” she said.
While Kerri said she was never shy, NJROTC brought her “out of her shell” and taught her how to lead and take charge.
“Now I want to be in the military,” she said. “It has helped me to choose a career.”
After graduating from the academy, Kerri said she’d like to become a Marine Corps pilot. Ideally, she wants to fly an AH-1Z, an assault helicopter known as a Super or Viper Cobra. If that doesn’t come to fruition, Kerri said she’d like to get into “explosive ordinance disposal” in a unit that dismantles bombs.
At first, Kerri said, her mom wasn’t happy with her career choice because of safety concerns. But once she was accepted into the naval academy, Kerri said her parents and siblings, Alex, 19, and Shannon, 15, were “thrilled” and became fully supportive of her decision.
But the prospect of enrolling at Annapolis wasn’t the reason Kerri first joined NJROTC.
She decided to sign on during her freshman year, she said, because her sophomore friends enrolled in the program were enjoying it.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet other people on the North Fork,” she said.
Her first taste of NJROTC occurred during a drill practice at Southold High School the summer before school started.
“My mom dropped me off and I saw upperclassmen that I didn’t know, mostly from Southold and Mattituck,” she said. “They were trying to teach us how to march and I’m just tripping over my own feet. I just remember thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ ”
But Kerri decided to stay with it.
“Usually when I start something, I finish,” she said. “I like to feel that I’m dependable.”