Not that long ago, Joshua Stinson's decision to join the Marines wouldn't have gotten big fanfare in his community.
But the 18-year-old is one of a growing number of military-bound high school seniors honored in special graduation ceremonies across the nation.
"There are all sorts of bells and whistles and ceremonies for kids going off to college, but there is no conversation about kids going off to the military," said Ken Hartman, former school board member in Cherry Hill, N.J. "What about these kids going off to war? Sacrificing their lives? There is nothing for them."
Frustrated by a lack of recognition for enlistees at Cherry Hill High School, Hartman launched Our Community Salutes, a program to distinguish the graduates entering the military.
Since Hartman's first ceremony in 2009, Our Community Salutes has grown. This year, 4,700 enlistees were recognized in 22 ceremonies in states including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.
"It's important that people know and care that young kids enlist in the military - it slips under the radar," Stinson said. "They think everyone enlists after college or that are in their 20s, but really there are kids that enlist out of high school."
In fiscal 2011, 28.8% of enlistees were 17 or 18 when they entered active duty, totaling 43,850, Department of Defense spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said.
The ceremonies show the graduates that their community is behind them, said Gene Clark, executive director of Our Community Salutes.
"It's taken off, and it's going to explode," Clark said. "I already have 44 cities planning ceremonies for 2013, and that number is only going up."
Toni Stinson, Joshua's mother, organized this week's inaugural Our Community Salutes event in Fredericksburg, Va., after the school board rejected her request to have military-bound students in her son's class wear red, white and blue cords at graduation.
"People in the service now can expect to deploy, and families sacrifice a lot," she said. "It isn't a safe place that they go. They deserve recognition."
Stinson, holding back tears, told the students they "will certainly make this community proud. Train hard. Stay safe."
Speakers, including Virginia state Rep. Rob Wittman, Brig. Gen. Joseph Osterman and Chief Master Sgt. Scott Fuller, made up the receiving line after the 37 recognized enlistees accepted their congressional record of enlistment. "Thank you for your sacrifice. Service really is a family affair," Wittman said, greeting each family individually throughout the evening.
Navy enlistee Joshua Love didn't have any family attending the ceremony in Fredericksburg, and he didn't know anyone at the ceremony, but he appreciated the support. "It's an honor to be recognized. I really feel like my community is behind me," he said.
Love will leave for Navy basic training in September. "Before I go," he said, "I just want to live my life as a kid for a little bit longer."