THE BLOG

High School Seniors Who Enlist Get Higher Education of a Different Sort

05/15/2015 03:01 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

As we enter high-school graduation season, our local newspapers, Twitter and Facebook pages will be filled with news about where our seniors will be attending college. Amidst all the excitement of college preparation--finding a roommate, shopping for bedding, saying goodbye to classmates--there are some other graduates heading off to a different, though no less exciting, path.

They are the high school seniors who, instead of going straight to college, will be enlisting in the U.S. Armed Forces. Only one percent of the nation serves in the military, and they are the true one-percenters. The seniors who are about to join this elite club deserve to be celebrated, commended and honored, along with their families who support them.

Although most Americans celebrate our veterans when they return, as well as supporting their families while they're deployed, many of us don't realize the enormous sacrifice and determination it takes for a modern, young 18-year-old to decide to enlist in the first place. High school seniors are told almost from the moment they start first grade that everything they do in school is targeted toward getting into a good college. Even though many who decide to enlist still plan to attend college, but only after their service, they face a society that extols the virtues, let alone the assumed necessity, of continuing on to college directly from high school.

They often face pressure from family and friends who question their ability to find work after their service has ended. Their teachers and friends might question whether they will be "wasting" their academic talents or skills. They feel guilty about worrying their parents, or they're made to defend their decision by people who make it all about the "politics" rather than about what the enlistee actually feels or wants.

Our Community Salutes is a non-profit organization that recognizes and honors high school seniors enlisting in the military. This all-volunteer group started with one small ceremony in 2009, and has now spread to communities across the nation. OCS understands the pressures that these seniors are under and have made it a mission to remind them, and the families and communities that raised them, that they should be proud of their decisions.

"You hear about students going off to the Ivy Leagues," says Robert Vecchio, president of the Board of Education of the William Floyd school district on Long Island, NY, which just launched an OCS ceremony. Twenty seniors from his community have enlisted in the armed forces. "This is a way for us to recognize the kids who are sacrificing their time and a lot of other things to serve our country. I hope they walk away saying, 'My community is proud of what I did.'"

While most of their classmates will be celebrating the end of high school, the beginning of college, and perhaps be a little nervous at living away from home, these one-percenters will be experiencing excitement and some nervousness of an entirely different sort. They deserve our respect, our support, and most of all, our appreciation. If you happen to know someone who's enlisting, don't forget to thank them. It will mean so much to them.