WILDWOOD — Forest Wan won’t have much of a summer vacation. Just two weeks after the Ocean City High School senior graduates, he will report to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
“I’m a first-generation American,” the 18-year-old from Upper Township said during a dinner hosted by Wildwood High School honoring Cape May County high school graduates who will enter the military. “I feel an obligation to give back.”
His mother, Hong, said she is very proud of her son, who was also accepted to Princeton.
“He said, ‘I want to serve my country,’” she said.
Eighteen graduates of four Cape May County high schools were honored at the May 30 event. The dinner was the first coordinated through Our Community Salutes, founded nine years ago by former Cherry Hill School Board member and Army officer Ken Hartman.
Hartman said as a school board member he would notice at graduation that all of the recognition went to students going to college.
“There was nothing for the 1 percent of graduates who choose to serve their country,” he said. Working with an Army recruiter, he organized a recognition dinner, which got some publicity. Today, he said, 50 sites in 23 states hold recognition events.
“I would hear from moms and dads who were proud, but also just tired of defending the decision,” Hartman said. “The dinner is also a thank you to them.”
Local officials attended the event and presented certificates to the students. Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, a retired Army sergeant, lost a leg to a grenade blast during his second deployment and said he knows that is something parents don’t want to hear.
“But it is a reality of what you signed up for,” he said. “It takes a special person to be willing to do this.”
Enlistees and their parents said the response has mostly been positive, but sometimes people are uncomfortable and unsure how to respond.
John and Jen Horton, of the Villas section of Lower Township, are proud and supportive of their son Tyler’s decision to join the Marines but admit it’s also scary.
“We do get people who say, ‘Why would you let him do that?’” John said. “But it’s a great thing.”
“The Marines are always what I wanted,” Tyler said. “It’s an elite squad.”
Juliet Hearon, 18, of Cape May, grew up with a Coast Guard base in town and decided she’d like to join.
“I like that I can be stationed in different places and get to travel,” she said. “I know it won’t be easy.”
“She was talking about it, but I am a little shocked now that it’s real,” her mother, Nicole Bove, said. “But I’m also very proud.”
Boy Scout trips to West Point convinced Tony Genaro, of Cape May, the Military Academy was for him, even though his grandfather went to the Naval Academy. His father served in the Army.
“I want to be part of something bigger than myself,” Genaro said. “I love the country I was born in. We are a patriotic family.”
He said he did have people tell him he was crazy to want to wake up 5 a.m. to do physical training.
“But it suits my personality,” he said.