Each year, just 22 out of more than 80,000 cadets nationwide are selected for the coveted Legion of Valor Bronze Cross for Achievement ROTC award. Early last month, Jessica Mele of Southold High School became one of two cadets from the Navy Junior ROTC northeast region to be recognized for their leadership and citizenship.
Major William Grigonis, who serves as senior naval science instructor for the Southold-Mattituck NJROTC program, said each year he can recommend one of his students for the honor. That recommendation then goes to Commander Jimmy Miller — the manager of the northeast region, known as Area 4 — who selects nominees.
Maj. Grigonis said Jessica’s record stood out among the cadets at Southold, Mattituck and Greenport high schools.
“She’s an amazing young lady, she really is,” he said.
Cmdr. Miller selected Jessica and Anthony Auciello, a senior at William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach as winners of the northeast region for how they embrace the core NJROTC values of honor, commitment, citizenship, selflessness and integrity.
“Out of my 65 schools, I will get one, maybe two candidates from each school and I narrow those hundred or so down to two,” said Cmdr. Miller. “It’s a pretty competitive recognition. The three main things I’m looking for [are] academic standing within the school, military standing and participation — how they are performing in their unit and their service to the community.”
Jess, 17, is a senior at Southold who plays volleyball and softball. She attended the Area 4 leadership academy twice, once as a cadet and once as an aide. A two-week military training stint at the academy affirmed how she wants to lead her life after high school, she said. She accepted her award during a freshman-parent orientation on Sept. 9, but found out about it back in May.
“We were at a drill competition and it was like 7 o’clock in the morning and [Maj. Grigonis] kind of just said it in front of everyone,” Jess said. “I was almost in tears when I found out. I didn’t tell my parents until I got home that day; that was just kind of how important it was.”
Jess’s mother, Kim, said the entire experience was a surprise.
“I just remember my daughter coming home and rattling off to my husband and I that she got this award,” she said. The award included a plaque, a certificate and a medal.
Jess said she hopes to gain admission to SUNY/Maritime on an NJROTC scholarship and then enter into the Navy. She hopes to play volleyball in college as well.
“I really wanted to find a school that was suitable for me,” she said. “I’m very active on my volleyball team and on my travel volleyball team.”
Maj. Grigonis said the award is the highlight of each year.
“You wait for it, you hope … Now, I’m waiting to see if Jess Mele gets a full-ride Navy scholarship … She’s already gotten with the coach. The team members already are embracing her. She’s going to get in, she’s got the grades.”
Most of the students who have earned the award over the years — nine from Southold High School in Maj. Grigonis’ 19 years here — go on to earn various, often full-ride scholarships and then enter into the military.
“Dante Tramontana, who got it last year, he’s on a full four-year Army scholarship to University of Georgia,” the major said. “My daughter, Jamie Grigonis, went on a full four-year Army scholarship to Fordham and now she’s going to be second lieutenant. Lauren Solo went to Northeastern on a five-year Navy nurse scholarship and now she’s a lieutenant in the Army … We’ve done pretty good.”
Maj. Grigonis said that the award is based on a cadet’s first three years in NJROTC. Nominees are chosen based on their grade point averages, fitness, community involvement and unit service. Cadets must be in the top 10% of their NJROTC class in order to be considered for the award, which Jess described as recognition for military excellence and academic success. Jess had a near-4.0 GPA and high SAT scores, according to the major.
“They take into account — is she a member of drill team? Has she commanded drill team? Has she risen in the ranks?” Maj. Grigonis said. “She’s presently command[ing officer] of the Southold unit … Does she provide things to the unit that other cadets don’t? And she does. Jess is, you know, what I would consider the total package.”
Throughout high school, Jess has kept up with community service by way of beach clean-ups and supporting local events. She takes part in drill practices, which, she said, inspire her to push that much harder.
“I think that’s where a lot of my motivation comes from, commanding my inspection team and really getting to know everyone else,” Jess said. “It’s something you don’t realize you should get recognition for because it’s something that I had so much fun doing; it was just part of my lifestyle.”
Under the guidance of Maj. Grigonis, Senior Chief Petty Officer Charlie Turner and his wife, Petty Officer First Class Felicity Turner — who junior officers and senior commanders work with on a near-daily basis — Jess said she has become the person she is today.
“They definitely have influenced my through the classroom, through drill practices and just being there as role models in life,” she said.