Army Capt. Luis Revilla took the U.S. flag shoulder patch off of his uniform and held it up as he talked to the young people assembled at the Aberdeen Boys & Girls Club about what drew him to come to the United States from his native Peru.
“All of my life, I wanted to be in the United States,” said Revilla, 47, who said he spoke little English when he joined the Army at age 29.
He was one of a quartet of soldiers assigned to Aberdeen Proving Ground who spoke with the young people at the Aberdeen Boys & Girls Club Wednesday evening about the dangers of drugs and the importance of making healthy decisions.
“All of you have amazing and incredible potential,” Revilla said. “Don't let drugs block that, to stop that.”
Several more soldiers visited the Havre de Grace Boys & Girls Club Wednesday for Harford County’s second annual “Night of Conversation,” an initiative to encourage families to talk about the risks of drug and alcohol addiction.
Meanwhile, Joe Ryan, manager of the Office of Drug Control Policy, visited with youths at the Edgewood Boys & Girls Club Wednesday night.
This is the first year the Army has participated in “Night of Conversation,” according to Tara Lathrop, assistant manager of the county’s Office of Drug Control Policy.
“They really honed in on the importance of making healthy choices and decisions and allowed the kids to have the opportunity to ask questions,” she said.
Revilla said the Army is “the most powerful and professional” fighting force in the world.
“If you think that the world is not looking up to us ... you're wrong,” Revilla said.
The Army hosted the National Opioid Crisis Community Summit, which brought together about 300 people from across the state, at APG’s Edgewood Area in September.
Opioid and heroin abuse have become an epidemic in Harford County and Maryland, with nearly 400 overdoses — 77 fatal — in the county so far this year, according to Harford County Sheriff’s Office statistics.
Aberdeen Proving Ground is Harford’s largest employer, with about 20,000 soldiers and civilian employees. Lathrop said many people need security clearances to work there.
“It was just another way to be able to show kids the reasons why it's important to make healthy choices for yourself,” she said of the Army’s participation in Wednesday night’s program.
Revilla, the commander of the headquarters company at the Army Test and Evaluation Command, or ATEC, spoke with middle and high school-age children at the Aberdeen Boys & Girls Club. He was joined by Lt. Col. Thomas Jarrett, a clinical social worker with the Army Public Health Command at APG’s Edgewood Area.
Two other soldiers talked with elementary school-age children at Aberdeen.
Jarett and Revilla have been deployed during the Global War on Terror — Jarrett has been deployed to Iraq three times, and Revilla has been to Iraq once and to Afghanistan twice.
Revilla recalled arriving in Texas after returning from one deployment to Afghanistan. A girl about 12 years old was waving an American flag, and she told him, “thank you for protecting us.”
He said it was a profound moment for someone who was not born in the U.S. to receive thanks from an American for his service.
“That what I’m here for, because I’m grateful for all of you, for allowing us to serve you, to protect you, to go to war for [you],” he said.
Jarrett stressed to the youths that Wednesday’s talk was not about recruiting them for the Army — several asked how old they have to be to join and whether they need a college degree.
He talked about how the military gives people the opportunity to have adventures, and it also trains people, in many cases as young as 18, to make serious decisions.
“That all goes away if your mind starts to get fuzzy and you can't make a decision,” he said, referring to the effects of drugs.
Jarrett said the military trains its members to look out for each other. It also gives each service member the duty to refuse an illegal order — even the lowest-ranking solider bears responsibility for the actions of their unit.
He said studies conducted by the military have shown that the people most susceptible to becoming drug addicts are people who “get separated from the pack,” or are “out of your element, trying to find your way.”
“It is imperative that you put yourselves in groups of people that are going somewhere,” Jarrett said.
He said later that “Harford County really outdid itself” with “Night of Conversation.”
Summer Bond, 14, of Aberdeen, took the message of avoiding drugs to heart.
“They were showing us that they care about us and they want us to do better,” the Aberdeen Middle School eighth-grader said.
Summer said the most important thing she learned was to not do drugs, “because I want to keep my brain.”
Breana Knott, 12, of Aberdeen, said she was impressed by Revilla’s story about being from another country and wanting to serve in the U.S. military.
The Aberdeen Middle seventh-grader, whose cousin was in the Army, got a view of soldiers Wednesday that was different from the “hard core” image she had before.
“I realized that they care about their country and they want to help people,” Breana said.
Night of Conversation participants are encouraged to visit http://www.harfordcountymd.gov/319/Community-Services to take a brief survey and a chance to win a $250 Visa gift card. The deadline to complete the survey is Tuesday, Nov. 21.