Just three years ago, Rodrigo Franco was living in El Salvador. He said he was in near constant fear of gang violence, and mourned many friends who were caught in the crossfire.
On Friday morning, Franco stood before U.S. Army Secretary Mark Esper and raised his right hand. He was one of eight Maryland recruits personally welcomed into the military branch by its leader.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Franco, 25, who now lives in Gaithersburg. “You don’t know what the future has in store for you.”
Esper spent Friday morning visiting Fort Meade, a brief trip that culminated in the swearing-in ceremony. He said it was the first time since assuming his position roughly eight months ago that he’s led new recruits in reciting the Oath of Enlistment.
“Today these fine eight young men will join what I like to say is the elite 1 percent who will defend the other 99 percent of the American people,” he said. “They are taking on an important commitment by raising their right hands and swearing that oath and I want to thank them personally for doing so.”
He said his visit largely centered on “understanding how we recruit young men and women into the service.”
While on the base, Esper toured the Military Entrance Processing Station, where people go to enlist, and spoke with members of the 1st Recruiting Brigade. During a roundtable discussion, Esper and the recruiters discussed ways to attract the nation’s best talent to the Army, including service members who want to work in intelligence and cyber security positions at bases such as Fort Meade.
“We talked a lot about the challenges and opportunities they face out there in the communities, and where they may or may not need more resources,” Esper said. “I asked them what kids are paying attention to these days. They talked about the need to have an even greater presence online and on social media to really get our message out.”
The secretary said growing the Army remains a top priority.
“Next year we’re trying to grow by another 4,000 and that’ll probably be the pace we seek to set here for the coming years,” he said.
Among the new recruits at Friday’s ceremony was Joshua Winston, 19, of Germantown. He’s planning to become an intelligence analyst within the Army.
“There’s not much difference between a cyber attack and a physical attack to me,” Winston said. “I want to prevent that.”
Winston said he was honored that such a high-ranking official would come to a swearing-in event. The other young recruits said they were on track to become Army mechanics, logistics specialists or infantrymen.
Some noted the significance of their ceremony coming during the week of Independence Day. That was especially resonant with the handful of new recruits who were joining the U.S. Army after immigrating to this country.
The day before the secretary’s visit, The Associated Press reported that the U.S. Army has been “quietly discharging” some of its immigrant recruits. The immigrants impacted, according to the AP, enlisted under a special program that aims to bring in medical specialists and foreign language speakers. Two of the eight men who were sworn in during Friday’s ceremony came through the program, according to an Army spokeswoman.
Standing alongside Franco, who is from El Salvador, were young men from Ghana, China, Brazil and Korea.
“It feels like it’s a gift that I don’t completely understand,” said Bruno Mamede, 25, of having the Army secretary there. Mamede, who lives in Potomac, moved here from Brazil in search of a better life.
Esper lauded the “diversity” of talent in front of him.