Dr. Ken Hartman, founder of Our Community Salutes

Dr. Ken Hartman, founder of Our Community Salutes

One percent of America’s graduating seniors join the military straight out of high school, but rarely is their commitment recognized at their graduation ceremony. Rarely are they listed in programs alongside their college-bound peers. And rarely does anyone say an anticipatory “thank you.” Ken Hartman is determined to change that.

“Seven years ago, I was on the Cherry Hill East school board, and as students came across the stage at graduation, I shook their hands and asked where they were off to,” says Hartman, an educational consultant and the former president of Drexel University Online. “Most said, ‘I’m going to Penn,’ or ‘I’m headed to Rowan,’ but every once in a while the answer was, ‘I’m joining the Army. I’ve signed up with the Navy. I enlisted in the Marine Corps.’ Later, I asked the superintendent how many students were joining the military. He didn’t know. I asked why we weren’t doing anything to recognize them. He didn’t know that either.”

And so, after an avid round of fundraising, Hartman organized the first Our Community Salutes (OCS) event at The Mansion in Voorhees. Military-bound seniors, their parents and guidance counselors enjoyed dinner and a recognition ceremony alongside active and retired members of every military branch. The event was a success, and Hartman planned to expand the event the following year – but he couldn’t have known just how quickly it would spread.

“I thought we’d do it again the following year, maybe raise a little more or invite a few more,” he says. “But the Pentagon ran a story about Our Community Salutes in an internal magazine for recruiters, and suddenly I was getting phone calls. A woman in Pittsburgh who was volunteering with the Army called, and I said, ‘Sure, I’ll help you put an event together.’ The third year we jumped from two chapters to 12, then 25, then 50 chapters of OCS in counties all over the country.”

Today, chapters from Miami to upstate New York hold annual ceremonies, all funded by charitable donations and support from local businesses.

“I always stress that this is not a government program – it’s a community program,” Hartman says. “We’re all volunteers, and we rely on people in the community to help us thank and support some of its bravest members. We do not accept government money, because it’s not the government’s job to thank our kids – it’s ours.”

Hartman ensures the invite list to the annual event includes not just the graduating students, but their parents as well. He sees the OCS mission as two-fold: to thank the enlisting men and women, and to support connections between their parents.

“Less than half of the parents who are accompanying their kids have ever met somebody who’s served in the military,” Hartman says. “Many of them aren’t quite sure how to handle that decision. You want to be supportive, but it’s hard and you don’t quite understand. Many of them feel like second-class parents. I’ve seen it happen – at graduation parties or summer BBQs or baseball games the first question they hear is, ‘So where is Maria going to college?’ And they look down at their shoes and say, ‘She’s not going to school, she’s going into the Marine Corps.’ And people automatically say, ‘What? What happened?’ They go underground. They don’t know how to defend their child’s decision, and they’re tired of being asked to. It can be very isolating.

“The OCS event is us asking those parents to come out from underground. They look across the table and see other parents who have felt the same things, and they know they’re not alone. So they begin to create a network amongst themselves.”

Carol Boyd, a Glendora resident whose son James headed off to Marine Corps boot camp soon after his graduation from Triton High School, knows a thing or two about conflicting feelings.

“It’s overwhelming, but more than anything I’m just so, so proud of him,” she says, fighting tears. “All I can do is stand by him and wish him the best. Of course there’s fear and anxiety; I’m his mom. But my husband was in the military, and I know how to handle it. It’s so much better to put the anxieties aside and just be proud. For him to succeed he needs to know we’re there with him, supporting him day by day.”

James Boyd shakes hands with Brigadier General Troy Kok at this year’s event

James Boyd shakes hands with Brigadier General Troy Kok at this year’s event

James, a clean-cut young man whose posture suggests he’s already been through boot camp and back again, says he’s never doubted his decision for a moment, though he knows it made him a bit different from his fellow graduates.

“I’ve always known what I want, and that’s to be one of the few, the proud,” James says. I’ll do 20 years in the Marine Corps. Today I’m already sure of that. I think that commitment definitely sets me apart from other people my age, but it sets me apart in a good way.”

Danvil Coombs, a senior at Sterling High School who enlisted as a Marine Corps Infantryman, also felt in some ways isolated from his peers by his decision. He is a young man who considers what he’ll say before he speaks, but his insight displays a maturity far beyond his 19 years.

“I think my peers, quite frankly, don’t understand,” he says. “My friends think, ‘Oh, he’s going to war, he’s going to up and die.’ That’s not why I’m here. I want to make a difference, and this is how I’ll do that. I’m not afraid. If anything – God forbid I’m going to die serving my country – there is something satisfying in that. It means you’ve given your life for something justified, and that’s not something to fear.”

Policarpo Tovar signed his contract with the Marine Corps last year when he was a junior at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden.

“I’ve known since I was a kid that I wanted something in my life that would be challenging,” he says. “I want leadership, honor, courage.”

Tovar, who headed to boot camp soon after graduation, is excited to begin a career as a combat engineer, and says he’d like to give back to the Our Community Salutes organization any way he can.

USMC enlistees Danvil Coombs and Policarpo Tovar

USMC enlistees Danvil Coombs and Policarpo Tovar

“It makes me feel special just to be invited here,” Tovar says. “It’s something I’ll be able to look back on and think, ‘when I went in, there were people who were proud of me.’ Down the road, I’d like to do something to help encourage other kids like me to join. I want to lay out the path for somebody, so they can feel the way I feel being here tonight.”

Hartman, who was a member of his school’s ROTC and was commissioned into the Army in 1980, says his only regret is not starting Our Community Salutes, whose motto is “The first to say thank you,” years earlier.

“A story that always hits home with me is about this kid named Jeremy,” he says. “He went to Cherry Hill East – just like my kids – and after he graduated he could’ve gone to just about any college he wanted. After a year at Rutgers, he decided to join the reserves while he finished school. His unit was deployed, and he was killed in Afghanistan. I went to the funeral, and on my way home I saw that there was a sign outside Cherry Hill East, where the procession had passed by on the way to the cemetery, that said, ‘Jeremy – Cherry Hill East Thanks You.’ That’s an example of a thank you that came too damn late. Jeremy could not see that sign from the back of a hearse. Where were the thank yous when he went in?”

Hartman says he eventually hopes OCS will put itself out of business. His ultimate goal is to make celebrating, honoring and recognizing these elite graduates so commonplace a nonprofit dedicated to the cause is unnecessary. In the meantime, he’ll continue to help people across the country start more and more OCS chapters, in hopes that every future veteran knows how grateful their community is for their service.

“As a nation, we are dependent on these young people to uphold our way of life and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Hartman says. “We need these young people who are willing to say, ‘I will stand in the watchtower, so my classmates can go now and do what they want to do.’ We need the best and brightest to step up, so let’s make it easy. Let’s tell them how much we appreciate them.”

July 2015
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