In 2007, Cherry Hill resident Kenneth Hartman was serving on the Cherry Hill Public Schools Board of Education when the board was discussing the high school graduation program.
During these discussions, Hartman discovered the district wasn’t recognizing students who were enlisting in the military after graduation.
This wasn’t just something Cherry Hill didn’t do. Hartman realized there was little being done for kids choosing to go into the military instead of college.
“When I looked around, it wasn’t just Cherry Hill, but it was across Camden County and in the state and out of the state,” he said.
Hartman decided something had to be done. In 2009, he founded Our Community Salutes, a volunteer-run nonprofit organization holding an annual event to honor area high school graduates enrolling directly into the military. The entire organization would be funded through donations from citizens, veterans’ organizations and private businesses.
Six years later, Our Community Salutes now has more than 50 chapters in areas as close as South Jersey and Philadelphia to as far away as Puerto Rico and Hawaii. The chapters have honored hundreds of high school recruits and have drawn crowds of as many as 10,000 people.
Last Tuesday, the United States Army honored Hartman as the recipient of the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, the highest medal the Army awards to citizens. Hartman received the medal for his work in founding Our Community Salutes and making it the nationwide organization it is today.
However, Hartman feels much of the credit should not go to him, but rather to the high school graduates who make the decision to enlist in the military over college and their parents for supporting them.
To Hartman, the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal is so much more than a one-man honor.
Getting Our Community Salutes off the ground
Less than 1 percent.
That is the percentage listed on the Our Community Salutes website of high school graduates who choose to enlist in the military over college. That is the percentage Hartman was hoping to touch when he began Our Community Salutes in 2009.
“There’s lots of recognition for kids going off into the service academies,” Hartman said. “This is for the less than 1 percent of all high school kids at 17 and 18 who chose to serve their country and in some cases, go to war.”
To help get OCS off the ground, Hartman reached out to LTC Ron Tuczak, who was a recruiter for the United States Army.
“I said I got this idea,” Hartman said. “I don’t know where I’m going to have it, how I’m going to have it or how I’m going to do it, but can you help.”
Tuczak immediately sensed the organization could greatly benefit recruits enlisting in the military.
“I thought it would be a positive, being in the Army and my job was to put people in the Armed Forces in the New Jersey and Philadelphia area,” Tuczak said. “Anytime we can connect with young people and be a part of the community, it’s a better thing.”
Tuczak reached out to recruiters from the other military branches to help gather a list of seniors OCS could honor at a ceremony.
In the meantime, Hartman wanted to gather donations and volunteers to help put on the best event possible.
“I literally went around tin cup in hand to businesses, veterans organizations and colleges asking me to help fund this thing,” he said.
Not only was he able to gather donations, he was able to establish relationships with businesses willing to donate services to the event.
“For seven straight years, a printing company has been printing invitations to the kids,” Hartman said. “Camden County Technical High School produces the program that we give out every year. We’ve had the Cherry Hill West Jazz Ensemble play at the dinner. It’s really a grassroots community-based organization.”
Hartman also wanted the ceremony to be held at a prestigious venue. He established a relationship with The Mansion in Voorhees. Every ceremony since the organization’s founding has been held there.
The first ceremony went off perfectly. Little did Hartman know there would be dozens of more ceremonies to be held in places he would never imagine over the next few years.
Becoming a national nonprofit
After the first ceremony, Our Community Salutes began to capture the attention of people outside of South Jersey. A story about the organization ran in a military recruiter magazine and helped spread the news nationwide.
Hartman began to receive emails and phone calls from people across the United States who wanted to get involved. Hartman began to invite those people to the ceremonies in South Jersey to see how they were done so they could be emulated in other regions.
Over the next few years, OCS chapters began popping up in every region of the United States. Hartman said the tight-knit military community and its willingness to support new recruits was a big reason the organization became so big.
“It grows in so many ways because of the chemistry created at these events,” Hartman said. “It just pollinates itself across the country.”
The organization reached out to hundreds of veterans across the country. One local veteran who got involved locally is LTC Bryan Dunn. A West Point graduate, Dunn first met Hartman while attending graduate school at Drexel University a couple years ago.
“I knew the truth in what he was trying to accomplish,” Dunn said. “I thought it was a great idea.”
Dunn did not enlist in the military right out of high school, instead choosing to go to West Point. However, he remembered hearing about fellow graduates who enlisted in the military right after high school.
“I remember there being a recognition for all the kids going to college and West Point was one of those colleges,” he said. “And I don’t think they said a thing about my classmates that were enlisting.”
Dunn said getting personally involved with Our Community Salutes has been a touching experience.
“I love seeing their wide eyes at the pageantry and the sense of community,” Dunn said. “We intend to say you’ve graduated high school and you’re doing something very honorable.”
“It’s about the parents and the kids”
The Army contact Hartman in early June and said they wanted to award him with the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal. At first, Hartman wasn’t interested.
“It was unexpected and really not necessary,” he said.
After giving the award some thought, Hartman decided to accept it. However, he didn’t want the medal to be all about him. He instead wanted the focus to reside on Our Community Salutes and the good it has done for hundreds of recruits across the country.
“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about the parents and the kids. I recognized the attention this medal brings to the organization.”
Hartman didn’t want to take credit himself, but both Tuczak and Dunn agreed Our Community Salutes would not be what it is today without Hartman’s resiliency and hard work.
“It takes someone like him to keep the ball rolling,” Tuczak said. “When someone calls, he’s there 24–7 to provide that assistance.”
“He nailed it with the community aspect,” Dunn said.
In the letter sent to Hartman, the Army also acknowledged his hard work.
“Your unmatched patriotism embodies the core values of a patriot and true humanitarian, which reflects great credit upon yourself, the United States Army Recruiting Command and the United States Army,” the letter read.
Our Community Salutes is continuing to grow. Last week, Hartman received multiple messages from people in different areas in the country interested in starting a chapter. While the amount of time running the organization has increased over the last few years, Hartman said being able to support the military recruits and their parents makes it worth it.
For more information on Our Community Salutes or find out how to get involved, visit www.ourcommunitysalutes.org.