If you’ve ever witnessed a silent drill team performance you know the feeling of excitement and anticipation. There is something positively electric about watching a group of women and men in crisp uniforms, marching and moving in lockstep, with precision control over their weapons — perfectly harmonized in perfect silence. There are no commands and no cadences, just the practiced beat of their movements. Started in 1948 in the Washington, DC Sunset Parades by the Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon team, these performances have enthralled spectators for decades. If you have not experienced drill before (or even if you have), you owe it to yourself to come to the Yard to see our very own Jolly Rogers, USNA’s Silent Drill Team that travels across the country giving performances — and has been an extracurricular activity (ECA) here since September 1990.
What’s in the Name?
The group was started by fifteen midshipmen that spanned the classes of 1991 through 1994. Within a few days of its founding, the platoon selected the nickname “Jolly Rogers”. There is some debate on the origin of the name. Some say it was based on the VF-84 squadron named the Jolly Rogers, and some believe it was chosen as a nod to the pirate flag (either way an upgrade from “Silent Precision Drill Team”). Midshipman Robin Dreeke (Class of ‘94) was the first midshipman team president. Captain Larry Nicholson, USMC, was the first Officer Representative (he recently retired as a three star general). From the start they were a passionate lot, as evidenced by their first spirit video, which includes interviews from Midshipman Dreeke and Major General Nicholson, along with others from the team. Now with more than 30 years under their belts, the team continues to excel. They are currently led by Captain Benjamin Rothchild, USMC, Officer Representative, and the Enlisted Representative GySgt Vanessa Vallejo, USMC, and the team is midshipmen run, with no coaches or other support personnel.
Their Mission and Makeup
The mission of the Jolly Rogers is to represent the Brigade of Midshipmen in official ceremonies and events by demonstrating excellence and discipline through precise and calculated exhibition drill performances. Their performing “block” includes 8-to-16 women and men, each of whom carries an M14 rifle with fixed bayonet that weighs about eleven pounds.
Although the platoon does not conduct formal tryouts, they do invite all members of the plebe class who attend some sports periods during their plebe summer. No matter what their experience level, interested midshipmen can join during the first week of school when practices resume for the academic year. Those who are committed to staying with the team are trained. This past fall, there were sixteen interested plebes — and twelve are now part of the team. They join the upperclassmen for a total of 23 midshipmen on the roster.
Taking it to the Streets (and the Stadiums)
The Jolly Rogers perform consistently throughout the entire academic year, reaching hundreds of thousands of spectators. This includes numerous events and activities, including the busy fall and spring parade seasons. They are an integral part of Friday outdoor noon meal formations. They also travel to Cornell University in October each year to participate in a drill competition — and to Tulane University in February or March during Mardi Gras week. They’ve performed in Madison Square Garden in New York, in New Orleans’ French Quarter, in Washington, DC and at many other premier events.
The Jolly Rogers somehow also find time to fulfill special requests, which change from year to year. Whether they are supporting local JROTC drill meets as judges or performing at the christening of USS Jack H. Lucas like they did last year, they bring a sense of tremendous pride and military tradition to the event. They even had the opportunity to perform at a Texans' halftime versus the Commanders on November 20, 2022. The USNA drill team continues to book big events.
Making a Lot of Noise
For a silent bunch, the team certainly knows how to have fun. In 1993, the Jolly Rogers were cast in the Baltimore Opera Company's production of Gaetano Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment, where they portrayed Foreign Legionnaires in full costume. They performed drill with rifles, which was challenging enough. Given the fact that it was their first time performing with bayonets fixed on their rifles, that took it a step further. Landon Clouse, Team President (Class ‘23) says, “Any alumni that I've ever met who participated in it absolutely loved it and said it was such a fun time.”
None of this would be possible without a strict daily practice schedule, which the team takes very seriously. They employ a “shirt system” to move midshipmen through the ranks. All start as a “Blue Rim,” wearing a standard USNA physical training (PT) shirt with their Navy Working Uniform (NWU) pants to practice. They’re expected to use normal customs and courtesies and learn the routine. After they have performed publicly five times, team members earn their "White Shirt" with the team logo that they can then wear to practice.
They are expected to shift from merely learning the routine basically to understanding it fully, learning how to fill different spots and take leadership and training roles within the team. Next, they earn their "Black Shirt'' with the team logo that they then wear to practice. The Black Shirts are the leaders; they are a council within the team that votes on changing the routine, acquiring spirit gear and the overall direction of the team. The requirements here are a mastery of the routine (able to move to different spots in their "performance block"), professionalism, attitude and an ability to meet team and Academy standards for behavior. Current Black Shirts select the next generation of Black Shirts. Clouse is a Black Shirt. He describes a close knit group: “Our team has a culture of merit, passing on of knowledge and close friendship. Plebes can have a say in the future of our team if they prove themselves.”
The Legacy of Chris Kennedy
This has been true since the team was founded back in 1990. In fact, one such special team member proved the impact that one person can have on the group. Major Chris “Psycho” Kennedy (Class of ‘94) was a midshipman Jolly Rogers member from 1990-1994. He loved the group so much that after he was commissioned as a Marine Corps second lieutenant and served on EA-6B Prowlers aboard VMAQ-3 (the “Moondogs”), he returned to USNA as a rotational history instructor and became an officer representative with the group from 2000-2003. Chris was very dedicated to the team. As a midshipman he would work out with any classmates who were struggling, donning his Service Dress Blues to work out with them at 6:00 a.m., for fun and for solidarity. As a faculty member he delighted the group by wearing a midshipman’s Service Dress Blues when the group accepted trophies at Cornell in 2000.
Tragically, on August 2, 2007, Chris passed away. Nearly a third of the Jolly Rogers alumni know Chris’ story well and speak of him often. They are committed to remembering him through their dedication to leadership, a commitment to the passing of knowledge and most importantly, a focus on the bonds they share with this team. Chris’ legacy lives on within each team member, and his life will not be forgotten.
See the Naval Academy Drill Team
The Jolly Rogers are an unforgettable group. Watching them perform on the Yard is a must do when you are in Annapolis. If you can see them at the noon meal formation on a Friday or catch them on the parade grounds, you’ll be captivated by their absolute synchronicity and sheer technical skills. (If you are interested in scheduling a performance by the Jolly Rogers for your own organization, you can send an email to email@example.com). When you visit the Yard, be sure to take a tour, enjoy our excellent restaurant options and find a souvenir to take home from our shops. Every time you support these places, you’re supporting the midshipmen, since proceeds go to the Brigade and help fund all ECAs, including the Silent Drill Team. What are you waiting for? The Jolly Rogers are ready to make some noise.