BOSTON, Mass. – Army Maj. Gen. Allan M. Pepin and Command Sgt. Maj. Franklin Velez, commanding general and command sergeant major of the Joint Task Force-National Capital Region/U.S. Army Military District of Washington and natives of the northwest suburbs of Boston, received homecoming salutes from local high school and university students when they returned home November 3-5, 2022 to talk with students about the impacts of their military service.
Pepin focused on Tewksbury Memorial High School and Wentworth Institute of Technology, where he attended school and Velez visited Greater Lawrence Technical School, where he attended high school. Both leaders brought with them Soldiers from The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” and of the members of the U.S. Army Drill team, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). While in town the group of Soldiers also visited Metheun High School, and the City of Boston invited Pepin to serve as Grand Marshal of its Boston Veterans Day parade. The Soldiers were overwhelmed with the warmth of the visit.
When Velez arrived at Lawrence High School to speak with the JROTC program and freshman class, his visit became a family affair. The 9th grade vice principal his cousin Melissa Melendez introduced him to the students and his sister Carmen attended the school assembly.
“We knew a long time ago that Command Sgt. Maj. Velez was going to end up in the Army somehow because I can’t tell you how many times I stepped on those little plastic Army green Soldiers [growing up],” said Melendez proudly. “I’ll be honest, I had to look up what command sergeant major was because I did not understand that it was such a high rank.”
While in Lawrence, Velez returned to Greater Lawrence Technical School, his high school alma mater. Locals greeted him with a hero’s welcome by suspending a large American flag between two firetruck aerial ladders that extended nearly 100 feet high.
“I’ve spent 32 years of my adult life in the military and have gone so many places and have seen so many things,” said Velez. “I started here in Lawrence. I graduated in 1988, left here in 1990 and it was a long journey to get to where I’m at, but it went quick.”
Colleen Abdulla, a student at Greater Lawrence Technical School, said that Velez returning to Lawrence is incredibly important. She said his presence reminded her that senior leaders like him were once in their shoes as high school students too.
“This is a truly humbling experience,” reflected Pepin on his return to Wentworth. “I have not been back on this campus since I left when I got my commission, and I went off to do the Army’s mission.”
While the schools asked Pepin and Velez to share their Army experiences, the leaders encouraged Soldiers members of the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” and of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) traveling with their group to share their stories as representatives of the new generation of service members.
“The folks I [brought up here], they’re a little bit younger than I am. They’ve got maybe a year or two maybe three years in the Army,” said Velez. “I really don’t want to talk about myself because these kids have a more amazing story than I do.”
“The [band] obviously looks and sounds amazing,” said Pepin while speaking at Wentworth. “Our drill team, they look awesome, but what you see behind that [are] Soldiers who joined with a unique skillset. The lead drill member you saw, he’s actually a medic. He’s not a professional drill team member, we don’t have an MOS [military occupation specialty] for that.”
In fact, the drill team member that Pepin spoke of, Spc. Reace Fitzgerald, from Fort Wayne, Ind., competed in the World Drill Championships as an individual and is currently ranked #2 in the world.
While visiting their hometowns Pepin, Velez and their supporting assets from The Old Guard stopped by the Methuen High School JROTC program.
“Honestly, I was expecting it to be incredibly formal, not nearly as stress free as the Major General and Command Sergeant Major made it,” said Lt. Col (Ret.) Timothy O’Flaherty, Senior Army Instructor Methuen High School. “Both men are incredibly modest in their accomplishments. It was a relief that they were both down to earth.”
During their time at Methuen High School, Pepin and Velez cut their speaking time short and allowed the Soldiers who accompanied them to tell the audience their own stories.
“Just like everything else we do in the military we don’t do it alone,” said Pepin. “I’m not going to really talk to you about what I do at this level. The people behind us are representatives of the phenomenal Soldiers [in the Army].”
Currently serving as a Sentinel Tomb Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier located at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia, Sgt. Kamille Torres joined Pepin and Velez on the trip to share her story. She is the sixth woman to earn the Sentinel Badge since 1958 and is the first Latina to hold the high honor.
Torres shared her story about joining the Army to become a cook with hope of infusing the food she would be making for service members with her Dominican and Puerto Rican culture. She said when the opportunity to join of the most prestigious units in the Army came along she couldn’t resist interviewing for The Old Guard.
“The stories and experiences of the younger soldiers were just as important as the ones from Maj. Gen. Pepin and Command Sgt. Maj. Velez because their age group is a lot closer to ours,” said Alexa Schaal, JROTC cadet command sergeant major at Methuen High School. “We can relate to where they are in life now and how they got there since we can picture ourselves in their positions just a few more years down the road.”
Four members of the U.S. Army Drill team also performed for the JROTC cadets. They displayed discipline and precision while conducting their maneuvers.
“Watching a real-time armed exhibition from the Army, from young Soldiers, was a true honor and privilege,” said Schaal. “It’s motivated me to become just like one of those young Soldiers who can make something so difficult look so easy.”
Throughout their time in the Boston region Pepin and Velez shared one common message, that they have believe the future generation of the Army can be successful.
“Some little things you’re learning in this junior ROTC program will help you be successful in whatever you do,” said Pepin. “It makes me proud for those who are going to serve and those who are going to go out into society. This is why we serve. We want our nation to be prosperous. We want our nation to represent all people. There is no doubt that you are going to do that [when] your generation graduates.”