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N.J. group aims to make sure high school grads who enlist in the army are honored

An organization rooted in southern New Jersey is making sure high school seniors who plan to enter the military after graduation are being honored.

“We want to be the first to say thank you,” Dr. Ken Hartman, founder of Our Community Salutes, said.

Hartman, who was a member of the board of education for Cherry Hill Public Schools in 2008, remembers students who were accepted to college or those who earned a military academy appointment were always recognized during graduation, but those who decided to enlist in the military were ignored.

“Superintendents don’t get brownie points for kids going to the military,” Hartman said. “Elite colleges are the incentive.”

Hartman says he served in the ROTC program in college and later served in the United States Army.

Unable to find a single school district where enlistees were recognized, Hartman decided to do something about it.

“I thought it was critically important to thank recruits before they headed off to boot camp,” he said. “They need to know they have their community’s support to see them through the many challenges they’ll face, including the possibility of deployment.”

Hartman rallied financial backing from veterans’ organizations and local businesses. Recruiters for the Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy and National Guard identified about 50 students from Camden County who had committed to join the service.

Before graduation in 2009, Hartman hosted the first Our Community Salutes event. Certificates of recognition from the N.J. Senate were bestowed on each recruit as their families and friends watched.

“I have never felt so honored in my life… I’ve always thanked the men and women who serve to protect our freedom, but now I am the one being thanked and wow, it feels so incredible,” C.J. Smith, a high school senior from Cherry Hill, said after a recognition ceremony in Voorhees.

Since the first ceremony in 2009, the Our Community Salutes concept is being embraced by other cities and towns across the country.

This year alone, nearly 5,000 recruits were honored at ceremonies in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. Hartman says 40 additional communities have already expressed interest for 2013.

Hartman says the Our Community Salutes program has been so well received that it is now his goal to increase involvement from key personnel within the service branches.

“We still have to get more support from the very top,” Hartman said. “We don’t need their money, but we need them to stand behind our purpose and agree to participate in ceremonies when invited,” he added.

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