DOBSON — In true military fashion Surry Central Air Force JROTC cadet Nick Zagurski has gone over or around obstacles in his life to become a valuable team member in the program.
Zagurski’s mother, Salina, said he went deaf at the age of two as a result of an ear infection. She said at the time, his favorite show was Star Trek The Next Generation. She indicated she noticed one morning Nick had stopped reacting to sounds on the show.
Nick has a high tolerance for antibiotics, so there was nothing the doctors could do to stop the ear infection from taking his hearing. She described the slow process of watching her child become withdrawn and developing high functioning autism. He did not want to learn sigh language or be touched.
Today the sharply dressed cadet honored with a color guard shoulder cord for successful performances, with a quick smile and firm handshake is, in Star Trek terms, light-years away from that difficult chapter of his life.
“When Nick was little, he saw soldiers,” explained Salina Zagurski. “He told me he wanted to be a soldier.” As a freshman he finally got his chance to be a soldier through JROTC.
The uniform proved to be a catalyst for changes in the young man.
‘The minute he put on the uniform he was a new man,” said Salina Zagurski. “I was very surprised and pleased with how the color guard has accepted Nickolas. He never wanted to learn sign. Now after class he comes home and tells me military history. He researches about uniforms and tells me about it. It’s been something to watch him come out of his shell.”
Zagurski’s attention to details that high functioning autism affords him makes him a natural for a cadet. He has even become fast friends with color guard commander Darren Brown.
“He came in the first day and I thought, Oh Lord, how do I do this,” recalled Brown. “Just took him out and started showing him the movements and he learned it very well.” Brown said Zagurski has learned the drills for spinning rifles as well as the flags and is next learning to use the sabers.
Brown said he has grown so comfortable with Zagurski that they both carry notebooks and paper to write back and forth for communication.
“I like ROTC and I love the blue uniform. Me and Darren are in the color guard,” signed Zagurski. “Darren is the commander and he’s good at it.” He also signed in detail all the criteria a uniform is judged on at inspection.
Brown’s JROTC officers Lt. Col. Brian O’Connell and MSgt. Greg McCormick spoke highly of Zagurski’s accomplishments.
“The kids in the program do all the training,” said McCormick. “They just all came together around Nickolas and took him in. It was truly, truly a team effort.”
O’Connell indicated he valued Zagurski’s curiosity. He said JROTC is really about a program for educational experiences. He said the program is about students learning life skills for success.
“He’s (Zagurski) very inquisitive as well as dedicated,” began O’Connell. “He peppers us with questions. The units I taught him recently were astronomy and space exploration. I appreciate how you don’t need to say please ask questions to Nick.”
McCormick explained how JROTC must have 10 percent of the student body involved which typically amounts to 80 students. He said the program at Central has 237 students involved, so he and O’Connell typically rotate teaching half the students for classes.
“Nick has been amazing. He came to a program a lot of kids are scared of,” added McCormick. “He has been embraced by the group, leading and excelling in spite of deafness. He wouldn’t be in color guard if he wasn’t. He never shows frustration and this is tough for him. He has to react because of deafness.”
McCormick also said future units for Zagurski involve writing papers and giving speeches. He said Zagurski will do this just like everyone else in the class. More challenges will be added to every level as he progresses.
Those who know him say important player in the story has been Zagurski’s interpreter, Penny Mears. She said Zagurski and she had to literally invent signs to represent color guard routine movements.
“I was so nervous in the beginning. I worried how do I sign this. When I messed up they have always been very positive. It’s like a family, ” said Mears. “Darren has learned signs and had a lot of input on quite a few things. Before ROTC Nick was so hands off. Of course, there are times I showed up in six-inch heels and found out we had practice on the field that day but we learned to roll with it.”
Early on in the process, Brown asked her why she was signing Zagurski’s orders backwards. Mears said she’d forgotten she is facing the color guard on the field. This means they not only had to invent the signs but had to translate the directions backwards so the cues she gives Zagurski would be correct because he’s facing her. His right is her left.
“She (Mears) was just as proud as Nick when he received his color guard honor chord,” said McCormick. “She’s a big part of this too. She has had a huge impact. Kids learn from him as well. They don’t leave him out of anything. We forget he’s deaf.”
Salina Zagurski is complementary of changes she has seen in her son for the past two years.
“They told me they were excited about Nick a the first open house we attended,” remembered Zagurski. “I thought as a parent wow, this is going to be great.”
“I’ve really seen him change. He’s a young man now, more independent and that has been wonderful for Nickolas,” said Salina Zagurski. She said his interest in military history has really been kindled by the program and might be a direction he pursues.
McCormick said Nick and Penny feed of off each other’s energy and that is contagious. He said he looks forward to seeing what Zagurski will do next because he is not intimidated by a challenge.
Reach David Broyles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1952.