Our Community Salutes gathering honors local teens heading into military

May 18—Dozens of local residents and a variety of businesses pooled their resources May 17 to offer thanks, a round of applause and a hearty meal to a variety of teenagers who have hitched their futures to the U.S. military, and a couple of the Army's most prominent figures offered a few words of wisdom in the bargain.

Our Community Salutes, a national program dedicated to "honoring and supporting our nation's newest and youngest service members," held its annual enlistee recognition gala at USC Aiken Convocation Center, and this year's young guests of honor included 31 teens mostly representing schools around Aiken, Edgefield and Barnwell counties.

It was "an amazing event ... to celebrate those that are stepping forward to serve our nation," in the words of Lt. Gen. Maria Gervais, a Lander University graduate now serving as deputy commanding general and chief of staff of the Army Training and Doctrine Command.

Also addressing the gathering was Medal of Honor recipient Ryan M. Pitts, who served in the Army and received the military's highest commendation for his valor in Afghanistan on July 13, 2008, when he was a sergeant and showed "extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty," as described in the medal citation. Pitts, a Massachusetts native, was described as one of 66 living Medal of Honor recipients.

He enlisted in 2003 and "met some of the most highly intelligent, committed, dedicated people that came from all different backgrounds, all different corners of the military ... and we became a family," he recalled.

The fundamentals that are instilled in basic training are important, he said, citing such examples as learning how to handle an M-16 and how to use grenades to clear an enemy bunker. Coming later were the chances to learn how to jump — relatively safely — from an airplane and to "join a family that put themselves last, and you care more about the people around you than you care about yourself."

His listeners included students on the verge of completing their studies at Midland Valley, North Augusta, Fox Creek, Aiken, Barnwell, Blackville-Hilda, South Aiken and Ridge Spring-Monetta high schools, along with Aiken Scholars Academy. Two enlistees from Georgia were also part of the gathering, as were military recruiters based in a variety of locations.

Gervais also shared from her decades of Army involvement, dating back to 1987, when she received her Army commission. "I wasn't from here," she said, recalling plenty of traveling in her early years.

"My dad retired in South Carolina, because when my mother and father were stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and they were raising nine kids, my mom fell in love with South Carolina, and so there was no other option for my dad to retire but to South Carolina, and we call Greenwood home, and I still call South Carolina home, even thought the Army has taken me away from the state that I love so much, so it's great to be back here, right now."

Gervais described herself as humbled and honored to be in such a gathering. Addressing Pitts, she said, "You're the picture of commitment, bravery and also the essence of service to our nation."

Focusing on her younger listeners, she added, "I ask that you learn from your leaders and your learn from your peers. As you grow into leaders yourself, be examples for all those around you, and still know that you're going to have even more to learn, even more to grow and even more to give."

Gervais also recalled a decades-old Army recruiting theme, with "be all you can be" as the central concept. "As I look back on my career, standing up here right now, if you ask me, 'General, were you all you could be?,' I would tell you, 'Yes, I was all I could be, but I was more than I ever imagined I could be, and so could you.'"

The local OCS board of directors includes such individuals as Linda Caldwell, Tom Briatico, Duncan Huyler, Dale Haas, Sondra Thomas, Robert Murphy, Mike Graham, Dara Glass, Jim Foley, Sara Lombardi and King Laurence. Woodside-Aiken Realty, Westinghouse, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, Centerra, Savannah River Mission Completion, Longenecker and Associates were among the event's major sponsors.