Cherry Hill educator and Army veteran Ken Hartman founded the nonprofit organization in 2008 with the help of recruiters and veterans organizations. There are now 35 chapters in 22 states.
"Historically, kids who go into the military tend to not get the attention they deserve," says Hartman, 54, adding that the celebration "is as much for the parents" as for the graduates.
"Sometimes their child is the first in their family to enlist," he adds. "Some of these parents feel like second-class citizens to the parents of kids who are going to college. We need to break the myth that kids go into the military because they have no other options."
Having had two brothers, several cousins, and, most recently, a nephew in uniform, I knew that already. But I didn't know about the 1 percent.
"Only 1 percent of this nation serves in the military, and 99 percent reap the benefits of that service," Jones tells the crowd. "You are in a very elite group."
The South Jersey chapter of Our Community Salutes is honoring 55 seniors this year. All but a handful are male; the female share is as high as 20 percent in other chapters, Hartman says.
This rainbow coalition of enlistees from urban, suburban, and rural communities is headed to the New Jersey Army National Guard as well as the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.
Some will join the Reserve while going to college. Sterling High senior Tom Harkin will do Army Reserve basic training before heading to Rowan University to study engineering.
"I can't wait," says Harkin, 18. "I'm counting it down."
He and his mother, Pat ("I'm not counting down"), take their seats in a room where an impressive array of military brass sits at the head table in dress uniform.
Sgt. George Watson Sr., 92, of Lakewood, one of a dwindling number of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, is an honored guest. Dozens of older vets sport caps from local VFW and American Legion posts.
It's like a red, white, and blue reunion among generations.
"This is fabulous," says Harley Marks, 18, who will graduate from Gloucester City High School on June 21. He reports for basic Army training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., on July 21.
"To know that we're recognized and appreciated means a lot," adds Marks, whose older brother, Bruce, is already serving in the Army.
Robin Marks, 41, a teacher's aide in Gloucester City schools, has "a lot of mixed emotions" about having another son in uniform.
But she's proud of Harley, who wants to become a firefighter.
Trinidad keeps dabbing at tears but is happy to talk about her son. Quiomy is a senior at the Pennsauken campus of Camden County Technical School.
"For them to do this ceremony is awesome," says Trinidad, 39, a mother of five from Camden who works as a medical biller.
She is proud but worried: After all, some of these young people may end up in harm's way.
"He's a really good kid," Trinidad says, eyes shining. "I want him to stay focused and stay strong, and know that I will always be here."
Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.