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When Timofej Johnson, a graduating senior at a vocational high school in southern New Jersey, enlisted in the military last fall, he wasn’t anticipating any special shoutout. The great-grandson of immigrants from Ukraine, Johnson decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps out of love for a country that welcomed and uplifted his family—and didn’t expect much recognition beyond that.

But recognition is what he and some 100 other young, new military enlistees got during a recent ceremony at a grand manor in the suburbs of Philadelphia. “I didn’t expect anything like this to happen,” Johnson said during the event. “It feels good.”

The ceremony was one of dozens held across the nation by Our Community Salutes (OCS), a national nonprofit that honors young, new enlistees that is supported by Navy Federal Credit Union and other sponsors and volunteers. 

The organization, based in nearby Voorhees Township, N.J., was shaped in part by a tragedy that rocked the area in 2010, when native son Jeremy Kane, a young lance corporal in the Marine Reserves, was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. The community leapt into action, quickly organizing a funeral procession in his honor and lifting up his name in marquee letters.

But the thanks, though appreciated, came too late, according to Ken Hartman, a retired education executive and officer of the U.S. Army who is a friend of the Kane family.

Indeed, Kane received little recognition when he joined the military, a decision he made as a college student on September 11, 2006. He faced more questions than praise, Hartman said, an experience Hartman says is common to young military enlistees and their families. While high school graduates are celebrated for enrolling into college and service academies and receiving scholarships for sports, music and academics, those who go directly into the military rarely receive such pomp and circumstance, he said.

Something Had to Change

Hartman—whose admiration for the military stems in part from its role in liberating his father and grandparents during World War II—knew something had to change. 

In 2009, he organized a local ceremony to recognize high school graduates who had enlisted in the military—an effort that has since spread across the country. “We’re the first to say thank you,” Hartman says. “We want them to remember the night that the community came together to say, ‘Thank you, we’ve got your back.’”

That message came through loud and clear at the May 7 dinner, which took place in a grand ballroom surrounded by lush gardens—not far from OCS’s inaugural event years ago. “Thank you for having the courage to join,” Michele S. Jones, retired command sergeant major in the U.S. Army, said during a rousing keynote address as hundreds of guests dined on a hearty meal of lemon chicken, potatoes and asparagus.

During the ceremony, dignitaries delivered uplifting speeches, presented awards to local educators and called out the names of the new enlistees, who lined up to receive certificates of recognition and shake official hands, much like they would during a traditional graduation ceremony. Capping off the evening, the enlistees’ mothers received roses. A military brass quintet was on hand to serenade the audience.

“These remarkable young people deserve to be honored for their selfless decision to serve their country,” said Kane’s mom, Melinda, an honored guest. “I am so proud to celebrate this next chapter in their lives and wish them nothing but the best as they embark on this journey.”

The ceremony had its intended effect. 

“It feels nice to be appreciated,” said Aidan and Gavin Ford of Gateway Regional High School, identical twins who have enlisted in the Marines and the U.S. Navy and who will soon part ways as they head out to basic training. 

Others echoed the comment. “This event makes me feel like, ‘Oh my goodness, they want me!’” exclaimed Rose Fein, a senior who is completing high school in 3 years so she can get an early start on her dream of becoming a Marine.

Honoring Hundreds of Thousands of Young Enlistees

The South Jersey event was one of roughly four dozen OCS is holding this spring in some two dozen states. Organized by volunteer groups of local parents, educators and business and community leaders, this year’s events are heralding more than a quarter million new enlistees. 

Navy Federal, for its part, has partnered with OCS since its inaugural year and is supporting more than 30 OCS ceremonies this year with volunteer support and philanthropic giving. Navy Federal is also marketing OCS’s Thank You card program in branches and beyond.

“We’re proud to serve alongside OCS in our mission to equip military families with financial success,” said Keith Hoskins, executive vice president of Branch Operations at Navy Federal. “OCS ceremonies give us a unique chance to connect with novice servicemembers and their families to help them get a solid start on their financial journey. We want to be there to support and serve them every step of the way, and we’re grateful that partnerships like these allow us to do just that.”

Peter Forcinito, former manager of Navy Federal’s branch in Cherry Hill, was eager to support the event from its earliest days. It “fits right in” with our mission to serve the military community, he said, and strengthens the connection new enlistees feel with financial institutions as they taste financial independence for the first time. 

In addition to certificates, enlistees receive a pocket guide to the U.S. Constitution and gifts from sponsors, such as Navy Federal-branded rally towels and swag bags. New this year, attendees also have access to an online resource hub with tools to guide them into military life, including resources on how to prepare for service, navigate finances and unlock educational opportunities.

Our Community Salutes is poised to grow in the coming years as ceremonies spread far and wide, Hartman says. “Our vision is that, someday, all young Americans who enlist in the military will have the respect and support they deserve.”

Beyond that, Hartman hopes OCS will change the larger cultural narrative around military service, which he says focuses on risks more than rewards. That narrative, he continued, discourages young people from enlisting and dampens military recruitment and retention efforts, which ultimately undermines national security.

“Our communities are disconnected from the military,” he says, noting that he too faced resistance when he enlisted in the 1970s. “We need to bring that connection back.”


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