For 17-year-old Ahmad Perez, vice wing commander of his Air Force JROTC unit, the MS-13 gang violence plaguing his Long Island community of Brentwood became more of a challenge than a drawback.
"Although there is a gang presence, unfortunately … we really do our best to overcome that and show the world essentially that we're a lot more than just gang violence," he said in an interview Monday. "It really just made us stronger."
In November, Perez was named a finalist in the prestigious Regeneron Science Talent Search for his work on the erosion of Long Island salt marshes, which serve as natural barriers to storm surges.
He cited the value of service above self, instilled by his JROTC unit at Brentwood High School, led by retired Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Kaelin, as a factor in his success.
"It helped me become the person I wanted to be in the future," he said.
Perez, who is of Moroccan and Puerto Rican heritage, said he had an interest in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps since sixth grade, when he saw cadets in uniform doing volunteer work in the community.
As part of the Brentwood High School unit of 300 cadets, the largest JROTC unit on Long Island, Perez said he did tutoring at the local library, visited hospitalized veterans, participated in community cleanups, and was a member of the color guard in drill competitions.
MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha), originating in El Salvador, was an ever-present menace, he said.
"The community is very much a minority community," he said. "Lots of kids aren't given the same opportunities when they come from Central America."
He added, "There's a lot gang violence. That's the reality I have to face in my school district. A lot of kids actually don't go to school at times because they're afraid of the environment. There have been murders in the school; there have been children who have literally been reported missing."
President Donald Trump has repeatedly cited the MS-13 presence in Brentwood and surrounding communities to bolster his arguments for a restrictive immigration policy and new construction on the southern border wall.
In his January 2018 State of the Union Address, Trump cited the murders of two Brentwood teenagers and close friends, Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, who allegedly were beaten and hacked to death by MS-13 members.
"Here tonight are two fathers and two mothers: Evelyn Rodriguez, Freddy Cuevas, Elizabeth Alvarado, and Robert Mickens," Trump said of the parents seated with first lady Melania Trump in the House gallery. "Six members of the savage gang MS-13 have been charged with Kayla and Nisa's murders. Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors and wound up in Kayla and Nisa's high school."
In his last State of the Union address in February, Trump cited MS-13 again, saying they had expanded operations to at least 20 different states.
The MS-13 threat on Long Island has reached the point where the New York City Police Department in February issued a warning to officers who live on Long Island that MS-13 could be targeting them to gain "street cred."
"They undeniably have a presence," Perez said of MS-13. "I could have easily let that affect me, but I decided to rise above that. I wanted to focus on school and through that I focused on research. If I let that get to me, I would never be here now."
In November, Perez was selected as one of the 40 finalists from among more than 2,000 students nationwide in the science competition, sponsored by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc., a biotechnology firm, and the non-profit Society for Science & the Public, which is dedicated to research and STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) education.
Perez was not among the three finalists chosen for the top prizes, but his selection as a finalist came with a $25,000 award.
His selection brought pride to his town and high school.
"Ahmad's accomplishment is ground-breaking for Brentwood High School, and it is a testament to the collaboration between the administrators and educators, and the district's investment in classroom resources," Islip Town Board Supervisor Angie Carpenter said in a statement.
Perez' project was titled "What is Happening to Long Island Salt Marshes" and focused on the effects of climate change on the Timber Point Salt Marshes in Great River, and Crab Meadow in Northport. The project also outlined a method of regeneration through the use of biopolymers.
Perez has been accepted by Boston University, with a guarantee for a transfer to Cornell for a major in environmental economics.
He hasn't yet decided whether he will join the military. Through JROTC, Perez said he developed "a definite interest in joining the military and serving our country. I'm keeping the idea of doing ROTC in college at the back of my head, but I'm not really sure at this moment. It's definitely a possibility right now."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.