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West Orange High School JRAFROTC Becomes Part of Vibrant West Orange Township Military History

WEST ORANGE, NJ -  Dotting the Main Street corridor in West Orange are colorful flags bearing the names of its “Hometown Heroes,” those who fought in WWI, WWII, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and more recent conflicts like Iraq and Desert Storm. These banners reflect the pride that West Orange has always had in its rich military history, which dates back to the Revolutionary War.

Hometown Heroes

(Christopher Morgan Hometown Hero Banner)

The township’s pride is reflected in its title of “New Jersey’s Most Decorated Community,” but it has been the formation of the JRAFROTC at West Orange High School in 2014 that has helped to continue the tradition of military service to the present day.

Most Decorated

("Most Decorated Community" Banner)

Integral to developing the tradition of honoring West Orange veterans every Memorial Day was Gary Englert, a 1969 graduate of WOHS. Englert enlisted in the army following graduation and served in the Vietnam War. He was an army ranger and highly decorated Vietnam veteran, holding two Bronze Stars, and a Four Chaplains Award.

Englert was well-known for his tireless energy on behalf of homeless and struggling veterans with the NJ Disabled Service and Veterans programs and as chairperson for the Township's Memorial and Veteran's Day ceremonies. From 2005-2011, he worked as Director at the NJ State Department of Veterans Affairs in Trenton.

Englert’s efforts to present 360 New Jersey Distinguished Service Medals to West Orange servicemen and women gave West Orange the distinction of being "New Jersey's Most Decorated Community." As Vice-Commander of VFW Post 376, he led the initiative to restore the monuments in West Orange War Memorial Park in 2013 with funds from the Post and the Military Affairs Commission.

Gary Englert

(Gary Englert)


(Restored monument at Memorial Park)

In December of 2009, an eighth grade student at Roosevelt Middle School named Dylan Pennell came to a Board of Education meeting and eloquently lobbied for the formation of an ROTC program at the high school. After the Board challenged him to return with a petition, RMS Science teacher and National Guardsman Maj. Paul Tavarone and WOHS Principal Hayden Moore returned with Pennell to the board in March of 2010 with petitions in hand. The process was not an easy one, but thanks to the efforts of elected officials, school administration, faculty, and West Orange Township, the AFJROTC became a reality during the 2013-14 school year with Pennell the first Squadron Commander in his senior year. Pennell went on to attend the Naval Academy, graduating in 2018, and was currently promoted to Lieutenant and is a Nuclear Officer assigned to the USS John C. Stennis in Norfolk, Va. 


(Dylan Pennell graduates from Naval Academy)

The Mountaineer Squadron of the WO AFJROTC, under the leadership of Major Joseph Marchesini (USAF-Ret.) and Chief Master Sgt. Ricardo Thurston, Sr., has attained “Distinguished Unit” status multiple times and has grown into a vital and extremely successful program at WOHS and throughout the Township.

Although the AFJROTC does not recruit students for the Air Force or any division of the military, its impact on military enrollment is clear.

From 2011 through 2021, 89 West Orange graduates enlisted in a branch of the military or went on to attend a military academy. From 2011-2014, 18 graduates enlisted. From 2014-2021, 71 graduates enlisted. Of the 71 graduates, 15 went on to complete college and be commissioned or attend a military academy, and five joined the reserves or National Guard. 

Several appointments were notable, including Pennell. WOHS Class of 2015 graduate Ginamarie Arrabito was the first female to attend a military academy – Air Force and the first female from WOHS to attend a military academy. Sisters Jasmyn (2015) and Vanessa Lettman (2019) will both be commissioned officers by 2024. Andrei Rosu (2017) graduated from West Point in 2021, following in his father’s footsteps. Several ROTC scholarship winners are now commissioned officers as well.


(Ginamarie Arrabito)


(Andrei Rosu is commissioned by his father, Col. Al Rosu)


(Jasmyn and Vanessa Letman)

Tragedy struck in 2019 when Christopher Morgan (2015) was killed in a training accident at West Point. Morgan’s death impacted the entire West Orange community as his brother Colin (2019) was set to enter West Point as well.

Vince Commisa, State Coordinator for the New Jersey Field Force, oversees admissions for West Point. He weighed in on Morgan, the JRAFROTC, and more.

“CJ (Morgan) was a personal loss for me,” he began.

“Chris was representative of the quality of kids from West Orange. They all have different strengths,” he added.

“Chris, possessed character and integrity. He was confident and knew about everyone else’s jobs. He really cared. Great leaders care about people. Chris was off the charts.”


Commisa reaches out to students through briefing sessions and high school visits. He reviews candidate scores, which are based on academics and extracurriculars. New Jersey has more cadets per district than any other state. In 2020, approximately 80 candidates were accepted at West Point from New Jersey, followed by California, Texas, and Florida.

“The AFJROTC program opens their eyes to opportunities at West Point and other military academies and whether it could be a good fit for them. You can get serious scholarships from the ROTC for college,” Commisa explained.  

Commisa added an additional reason for the increase in military and officer enlistment: Principal Hayden Moore.

“The culture at West Orange High School changed with Hayden Moore,” Commisa noted.

“He said, “I’m going to change the culture here and get them into service academies.” He helped to bring in the JRAFROTC program. Program Director Maj. Joe Marchesini does a good job. He teaches students what service is. He educates them. Mentorship shows opportunity. Great teams like the JRAFROTC provide students with experience to make decisions for college. It’s like a light bulb going off,” he concluded.

“I know I’ve said it many times before, but the AFJROTC Mountaineer Squadron has truly helped to change the culture here at the high school,” said Principal Hayden Moore.

“It has provided immeasurable opportunities for our students, brought a sense of pride to our school and community, and is now one of the top programs in the country.”


(Major Joseph Marchesini, Principal Hayden Moore, and Sgt. Ricardo Thurston)

As another Memorial Day passes and fallen heroes everywhere are honored, so it will be in West Orange. Its storied heroes, past and present, still stand tall in the history of the township. As the JRAFROTC continues to thrive, the community can expect many more men and women to join the ranks of those that came before them, enriching the global tapestry and bringing pride and honor to West Orange Township.

Visit the West Orange War Memorial Park, located at 66 Main St. and check out the "Hometown Heroes" banners along the Main Street Downtown corridor.

Support the Christopher Morgan Foundation, providing scholarships for students HERE.

Support the Dylan Pennell Scholarship, providing scholarships for graduating seniors via the West Orange Scholarship Fund  HERE.

Check out some "Discovering West Orange" military-themed videos by Township Historian Joe Fagan HERE.


Mountaineer Squadron receives Distinguished Unit status 2022.



Cynthia Cumming
May 28, 2022