Nebraska’s historic Pershing Rifles are flying again.
The University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s military drill team performed March 9 during the Pershing National Convention at North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway. The eight-minute performance marked the first time in a dozen years that the Nebraska team stepped onto the field to compete.
“We were nervous wrecks,” said Zachary Day, a sophomore finance major who led the team’s practices. “Our goal all year was to get to nationals and perform. We weren’t worried about placing. We just wanted to represent the proud history of Nebraska being the nation’s first Pershing Rifles company.”
Originally called Varsity Rifles, Nebraska’s drill team was formed by Gen. John J. Pershing, who served as professor of military and naval science from September 1891 to June 1895. During his tenure, Pershing worked to strengthen morale in the university’s cadet battalion and better prepare students for military service. Under Pershing’s leadership, the battalion expanded and gained acclaim for its proficiency.
After Pershing left in 1895, the select drill team was renamed Pershing Rifles. The Nebraska company became the first of more than 50 units across the United States that are part of the National Society of Pershing Rifles. The society is a coed military fraternal organization that follows Pershing’s goals of instilling leadership, integrity, discipline and military rigor.
The drill team’s most recent participation in the national competition is part of an overall reformation of Nebraska’s Pershing Rifles company.
Led by a cadre of dedicated student leaders and a new faculty adviser, members of the Pershing Rifles are looking to grow the recognized student organization — which is one of the oldest at the university — in both number of members and recognition at local and national levels.
“We have a group of kids and a faculty leader who are motivated to do everything they can to get this company into a better spot,” said Brian Niedert, a senior classics and religious studies major who recently completed a year as company commander. “It’s really been the perfect storm that has generated a good situation for us.”
Membership is open to all students regardless of enrollment in the ROTC program. The organization includes members who are civilians, U.S. military service men and women and participants in ROTC programs.
Members must successfully complete a rigorous initiation that includes testing about the history of the Pershing Rifles program (including the life and service of Gen. Pershing), memorizing leadership quotes and participating in physical training with current members of the company.
“Pershing Rifles as a whole is a great tool to help students become stronger leaders and better teammates,” Niedert said. “The skills and lessons learned in Pershing Rifles can be applied to just about anything you do in a future career.”
Faculty advising for the company is provided by U.S. Army Major Jamie Peer, who became Nebraska’s 63rd professor of military science in fall 2018. She also serves as national adviser for the Pershing Rifles group.
“Pershing Rifles is a very important part of the university’s history,” Peer said. “The company is all about esprit de corps, supporting each other and becoming better leaders as we carry forward the legacy and history started more than 120 years ago by Gen. Pershing.”
Pershing’s legacy at Nebraska was slightly tarnished when Day joined the program a year ago. The legendary drill team has not performed in more than a decade and its stock of rifles — all decommissioned 1903 Springfields with firing pins removed — were in disrepair.
A graduate of Bellevue West, Day served as a member of his high school’s ROTC drill team. Using lessons learned as the team’s rifle maintenance officer, Day went to work repairing the broken stocks and slings of the Nebraska company’s rifles.
“I figured if we were going to get the drill team going again, the first thing we needed to do was repair the rifles,” Day said. “I also performed individually at the national convention last year. Cadets saw me practicing and that got them interested in drill.”
Day finished seventh out of 64 participants in the national competition. After the performance, Niedert approached Day and asked if he would be willing to restart the Nebraska drill team.
Day agreed and served as the drill team leader for the current academic year. He organized practices, taught cadets to handle the rifles — from simple holds to complex tosses — and created a routine.
“I came into this program planning to just be a member of the team,” Day said. “I never expected to be involved as I have been. Teaching these eight individuals has been the biggest and most rewarding leadership challenge in my life.”
Niedert, who will serve as a regimental commander for the national Pershing organization next year, said the Nebraska chapter expects to be more visible in fall 2018. The group plans to participate in Big Red Welcome events and will actively seek new members through RSO recruitment activities. The campus community should also expect to see the drill team in action at public events as it looks to build upon its national convention performance.
“We didn’t place at nationals, but we didn’t drop a rifle and I was extremely happy with our performance,” Day said. “It was a great finish to our first year back as a team.
“Now, we need to continue practicing, improving our precision and adding more complex moves to our routine. We’ll keep building and continue the tradition that was started by Gen. Pershing.”