One of the proudest moments of a parent’s life could be watching their son or daughter walk down the aisle in their cap and gown to receive their high school diploma. Many parents take it a step further and bask in the glory of college acceptance letters, sports scholarships and academic accolades.
However, what if your son or daughter decided not to go to college? How would you feel? How would you feel if they decided to enlist in the military? You might pause for a moment or two to process this decision. Fear would definitely flash in your mind. Next, worry -- intense worry -- about what this decision means for your child. Your son or daughter has chosen honor, code and country over college, and you couldn’t be more proud of their decision.
Parents of future servicemembers soon realize that the compliments and accolades are mainly reserved for those who have chosen to go to college. Other parents look at you with a blank stare; give you a nod of sympathy and disingenuous congratulations. It can be frustrating and lonely for parents who have to depend on military recruiters for reassurances. The truth is, choosing enlistment in the military over college deserves more than a blank stare. These young men and women deserve recognition and respect for choosing to serve their country and not themselves.
Christine Zisner was one of those parents. After her youngest son proclaimed he was enlisting in the military instead of going to college, Zisner realized the path she envisioned for her son was very different than the path he was about to take. Phillip Zinser had a trust fund already in place to pay for his college, and he excelled in AP classes in the competitive Fairfax County School District in Virginia. All of his siblings were in college or had already graduated. However, Phillip surprised his mother by telling her he wanted to enlist in the Marine Corps.
Christine was in shock and overwhelmed with disbelief. Her family was not a military family. She insisted in speaking with the Marine recruiter in person. She admittedly walked out of the meeting baffled by what she learned from the recruiter about her son.
“When most kids are asked why they want to join to the Marines, most chose reasons such as paying for college and employment. My son picked something very different. My son said he wanted to belong to something greater than himself, self-sufficiency and honor. These were deep in meaning for a teenager. These concepts were important to him. I have never been so proud of my son than after understanding his reasons,” recalls Christine.
Later that month, she realized that students who received ROTC scholarships and acceptance into military academies were being recognized at their high school graduation ceremony. She called her son’s school to ask what they could do for the 11 students who were enlisting into military service. The answer was nothing. Christine felt impassioned about these students and believed these teenagers deserved some sort of acknowledgment. Despite sending email after email to board members and a principal, the answer was still no.
Christine finally contacted the highest ranking enlisted person she could find at Marine Base Quantico, Va. A helpful sergeant told her about a group he had heard of out of New Jersey with similar goals called Our Community Salutes. After contacting the group, she learned that in Cherry Hill, N.J., they host a public ceremony honoring all the area students who have chosen to enlist. She was thrilled to have found others like her who wanted something more for their children than just standard graduation.
Christine and her son Phillip attended an Our Community Salutes ceremony that year in New Jersey. She was profoundly changed from that moment on. With the help and resources from the founder of the organization, she created a local chapter in the Northern Virginia area. Today, she is continuing to provide recognition for these brave students who have chosen to join the military. This year, she will recognize 92 students in the Fairfax Country area. She has fought to keep the ceremonies genuine and pure without politics, keeping the focus on the students and their parents.
Dr. Ken Hartman is the person behind the non-profit group, Our Community Salutes. Founded in 2007, Our Community Salutes began because Hartman felt compelled to recognize the young men and women who enlist in military service instead of going to college. As a former school board member in Cherio, N.J., Hartman understood that college isn’t for everyone, and those who chose not to attend a post-secondary education after high school are sometimes lost in the sounds of applause for those who do.
Hartman decided to change that. He brought community leaders, retired and active military members, and local businesses together for a special ceremony to honor the students who were enlisting and their parents who supported them. The ceremony was small but very powerful. Parents finally had the applause and accolades for their children. It’s not every day that a son or daughter makes the decision to serve country before self. They were bursting with joy and overwhelmed with the respect from their community. It was a life-changing moment for all who attended. As a former Army officer, Hartman knows what these young high school heroes are signing up for when they enlist. Hartman says he’s awestruck by the strength and maturity these teenagers have.
“These kids are saying to their peers, ‘I’ll take the watch while you live your life. I’ll serve our country so you may enjoy your freedom.’ It’s a powerful statement and they deserve to be recognized,” says Hartman.
Last year, Our Community Salutes helped support more than 200 ceremonies around the nation to honor high school graduates enlisting in the military. The nonprofit offers communities a template and resources for hosting an honor ceremony. Its board members include parents, educators, retired military, and business leaders who have the same passions as Hartman. He is hoping to bring awareness to these young heroes across the United States by exposing the non-profit to other cities and counties. It’s an all-volunteer board, and Hartman has strict rules about how the ceremony is run. No government, military or Department of Defense funding is ever accepted. He believes the community, through local businesses and government leaders should pick up the tab. He only asks military recruiters to give them the names and contact information of the students and their parents to invite them to ceremony. Other than that, it’s all done at the grass-roots level.
Hartman boasts that after hosting an Our Community Salutes, 100 percent of new recruits attended basic training. In New Jersey, he said that the average was only 20 percent of new recruits who followed through with their commitment. He believes the ceremony reinforces that service is about pride and respect. The community respected these teens for the first time in their young adult life. Their choice to enlist, combined with a ceremony honoring their choice, they realized they were proud of themselves. Respect is a powerful thing for a teenager.
Our Community Salutes wants parents to be just as involved. Because your child joins the service doesn’t mean that they need to stop parenting. On their website, they offer a free downloadable brochure that encourages parents to turn into coaches.
Hartman says, “Parents need to encourage their children to get an education while they are serving. Not just a military education, but an education they can use when they return to private life.” He also believes that students who enlist and attain their degree while in the service have a much better chance of job placement in highly skilled areas than the average college student. Real-world work experiences combined with security clearances are exactly what higher paying employers want. Another benefit is most active servicemembers who receive a college degree leave their service commitment without student loans or debt for their degree.
However, Hartman knows there is a tougher, more life-altering commitment for those who decide to serve their country. He believes those who make that commitment should be held in the same esteem as those who make academic choices.
As a mother and military spouse of an active-duty member in the Air Force, I am thankful for people like Dr. Ken Hartman and Christine Zisner who want the decision of sacrifice not to go un-noticed or without mention. These young adults are shaped into soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who defend this country on a moment’s notice, without pause and without question. They deserve a small ceremony of gratitude from the communities who will live under their protection.
To find out how you can get involved in your community, visit www.ourcommunitysalutes.org.