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They know the drill: Pershing Angels turns 40


As a member of the Morgan State University chapter of Pershing Angels, the nation's only military drill team sorority, KiAnna Walker can perform many feats with her replica rifle.

As per military standard, she can't drop it: On Wednesday evening, Walker demonstrated the 31-movement routine the chapter will perform at the sorority's 40th-anniversary banquet tomorrow, and she knew that if her fake weapon hit the floor, she had to drop and do push-ups before beginning again.

Yet the Suffolk, Va., junior, who only a few weeks ago occasionally allowed the rifle to slip through her fingers, showed that the team's five-day-a-week practice sessions had paid off.

"This is called '1-9-6-5.' It's our signature drill," she says about the drill whose name derived from the year 30 Morgan State women founded Pershing Angels as part of the school's ROTC program.

Then Walker demonstrated "1-9-6-5," twirling the shiny, black-taped wooden object like a majorette with a baton -- rotating it right, then left, around her right wrist.

Then Walker flung the rifle over her right shoulder, and it slid down her back before she caught it with her left hand.

Morgan State's sorority is the only chapter slated to perform tomorrow, and its members are working diligently to ensure things go as smoothly as Walker's demonstration.

Yet they say there's been more anxiety over preparing for tomorrow's banquet, to be held before other chapters and alumnae -- particularly since the latter group often checks on the former to ensure members are upholding sorority standards.

"Precision is important, but drilling is more fun than anything else," says drill commander Janaya Stanley. "As far as making sure all the I's are dotted and T's crossed, the planning is the stressful part."

Still, for all those who will take part, the greatest feat will be 40 years of existence itself, as it has come while the group has juggled declining membership, financial woes and lack of sufficient visibility on campus.

"We've been around for 40 years, and it's been a long struggle," says Pershing Angels national commander Wanda Green, who attended Morgan and has been a Pershing Angel since 1977. She now resides in Richmond, Va.

"I'm glad it's still here," she adds, "and I want it to be around for another 40 years."

The group initially formed in 1964 but wasn't recognized by Morgan State as a student organization until Feb. 9, 1965.

Subsequently, Pershing Angels became recognized among the scores of female affiliates of Pershing Rifles, the on-campus military organization that for years did not admit women.

Pershing Rifles began admitting women in 1974, and in 1980 it extended invitations to all its affiliates to merge with Pershing Rifles.

Only Pershing Angels chose to remain separate. Today, it exists at nine schools -- all historically black.

"We trademarked our name," says Green. "[In] the last six years, we've tried to establish a national office, but we don't have an office.

"I have to do things at my home. I just put into my house a new office and a filing cabinet where I keep our records. My staff is in different states, and we do most of our work online."

She adds that at each of the nine schools where Pershing Angels exists, including Howard University, the Pershing Rifles units have obliged with their request not to recruit women.

"There was one time in the 1980s where our membership had dwindled at Morgan to where there was only one member, and she was accepted by Pershing Rifles," says Green.

"Some of the alumni went there, enrolled some women and got the chapter going again."

On most campuses where they co-exist, Pershing Angels and Pershing Rifles bolster their visibility by working in conjunction on many on-campus activities.

Walker says she had her first contact with the sorority when she took part in a candlelight vigil at Morgan State that was sponsored by Pershing Angels and Pershing Rifles for students who perished in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The sorority, which is not what one traditionally would think of as a college sorority, is also known in the community for its deeds.

Stanley, a senior from Baltimore, says each year Pershing Angels sponsors a family in the area, usually referred by departments of social services.

The sorority sponsors funding drives, then supplies food, clothing and other basic needs.

Yet as a sorority with military roots, Pershing Angels is best known for drill routines.

In addition to performing annually at Morgan State's homecoming, the group performs at local holiday parades, schools and nursing homes.

"All Pershing Angels must drill," says Stanley.

Still, Stanley said before enrolling in Morgan State's ROTC program, she had never heard of Pershing Angels -- despite enlisting in the Army Reserves before attending school.

The Morgan State chapter is composed of 10 undergraduates and includes women from Coppin State University, which shares in Morgan State's ROTC program.

Yet members say their smaller numbers make for a more cohesive group.

"Because we're small, we all know each other, and it has more of a familylike bond," says Walker.

"There is a myth on campus that you have to be a part of ROTC or in the Army to be a part of our sorority, and that's not the case at all," adds Walker.

"The only difference is we have more of a militarylike structure than other organizations. At this time of your life, it's important to have structure because we're all young adults about to graduate."

Green says there are 66 undergraduate sorority members nationwide.

She adds that there are 774 active members listed in the sorority's database.

"There are some sororities who pledge as many as 50 members at a time when we're pledging five," says Green. "But we will know those women personally, we'll know their families, and we can offer more moral support."

The group is working to add chapters at other schools -- including those that are not historically black -- and to gain more visibility on campus and off.

Yet Green says she encourages the chapters to find more venues to display the quality that makes Pershing Angels unique -- drilling.

"That promotes our organization," she says. "The high school kids can see that and say, 'I'd like to twirl a weapon like that. I'd like to step like that.' Drilling is what keeps us going."

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