VOORHEES, N.J. – It struck Christine Zinser a year ago, as her son Philipp was finishing high school and heading into the Marine Corps: At all the season's award banquets, while there were honors for those heading to military academies and college ROTC programs, the graduates who were enlisting were not recognized.
"I don't think anyone ever thought about the perception or the difference," Zinser said.
But she did.
And before long, the mother of four in Fairfax County, Va., found Ken Hartman, a former school board member in Cherry Hill, N.J., who had launched Our Community Salutes in 2009 after noticing something similar in his school district in a well-off Philadelphia suburb. The group holds ceremonies around the country to honor the high school graduates who are joining the military.
The efforts have expanded from a single ceremony in New Jersey in 2009 to 22 around the country this year — including one Zinser orchestrated for students in northern Virginia and others as far-flung as Portland, Ore., and Jackson, Miss. The group expects to recognize about 4,700 students this year. More events are already being planned for 2013.
"It's critical that these kids feel like their community is supportive of them," said Hartman, who runs the online learning program at Philadelphia's Drexel University. "If they're deployed and they're in a strange town in Afghanistan, they need to know they have their community's support. We're the first to say, 'Thank you.'"
For military-bound grads, this is not exactly the Vietnam era, when support was tepid.
They say their decisions to enlist may have surprised friends and family — but they hear about pride, not anger concerning their choice.
"They don't think it was weird. I guess they thought it was kind of out of the blue," said John Sabatino, of Somerdale, N.J., a 17-year-old who is heading to the Army's Fort Benning for basic training later this month after he graduates from Sterling High School. "They're nervous for me. My girlfriend's nervous for me."
Sabatino, who has been working out and studying Army protocol to prepare for basic training, joined in part because his stepfather is a recently retired soldier and he sees how much respect he gets for serving when strangers have shaken his hand and thanked him.
But Sabatino hasn't been honored formally in school for his choice.
Like Sabatino, Joshua Molinas, an Overbrook High School senior from Pine Hill, N.J., was among about 40 students to attend the Our Community Salutes banquet last week for Camden County recruits, held at a catering hall in Voorhees.
Among the 400 guests were several military officers. Music was from an Army Reserve jazz combo. A local television reporter was the master of ceremonies, and Vince Papale, the former Philadelphia Eagles player whose life story was the subject of the movie "Invincible," spoke. The enlistees all received certificates showing that they'd been recognized by state and federal lawmakers.
Molinas said he decided the military would be a good path to his goal of becoming a New Jersey state trooper and getting an education paid for.
His mother, Jean Henriquez, was happy to have the event and the reassurance it brings with it. "It's good to have because it shows me that they want him to be safe and it will help a lot with his future," she said.
Some of the speakers at the event were addressing worried parents as much as the recruits.
One, Army Maj. Gen. David L. Mann, oversees recruiting for the Army and talked about the sound qualifications of military recruits.
"They are better than most of their peers," he said in his speech, "not in an arrogant way, but because they chose a harder path."
Even if the graduates are not hungry for recognition, it can be helpful to their parents, Zinser said.
"You can be proud with other people of what your child has decided to do," she said.
Toni Stinson, who organized this week's inaugural Our Community Salutes event in Fredericksburg, Va., got involved with the all-volunteer group after her request to have military-bound graduates in her son's class wear special cords at graduation was rejected.
She said the value is bigger than making parents feel comfortable. As the wife of a career Marine and a mother of a recruit, she knows plenty about military life — and has been to plenty of military funerals.
"The community may not get another opportunity to thank these kids," she said. "Half of them will be in Afghanistan within a year."
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