MAUMELLE, Ark — It's prom season and awards banquet season— a time when teens fuss over putting on formal wear in the last days before high school ends.
Those athletic and academic awards dinners are meant to say "Congratulations, way to go."
On a special night at the Maumelle Country Club, an organization delivers salutes to those joining the military before they go.
There was a special invocation at the start of a unique ceremony and the start of new life chapters.
"We gather here today to recognize those who have chosen to serve our country," said an Air Force chaplain. "We are grateful for their selfless, devotion to duty."
"Tonight, we said thank you to the class of 2023 high school seniors who have made the decision - the selfless decision - to put their country before themselves by enlisting in the military after graduation," said Dr. Ken Hartman, founder, and president of Our Community Salutes.
As a New Jersey native, Hartman has worked for 15 years to honor soon-to-be high school grads who have enlisted after he saw a lack of support while serving on a local school board.
"I discovered that we were doing nothing for the kids who are enlisting," he said. "Kids who are doing ROTC or going to [a military] Academy, they got recognized. I was one of those kids many, many years ago. But for the kids who are going right into the military back in 2009, going off to war, we were doing nothing."
Hartman is on hand for the first Arkansas version of this ceremony, and when Army Col. Harold Tucker (Ret.) saw Hartman's efforts in other places, he knew that he needed to bring them here.
"We started looking around and saying, let's do this," the colonel said. "Because all they're getting right now, prior to us today, was just a slap on the back saying 'get on the bus. Thank you have a good day.'"
Col. Tucker has hinted at a purpose behind the pageantry. Recruiting for the military is tough right now and getting young people to sign up has been difficult.
When they do "get on the bus" to basic training, many will want to quit. A sign of support upfront, like the challenge coins they receive, could help change that and make a difference.
"Those kids will get these coins out," said Tom Anderson, who co-chairs the Arkansas chapter with Col. Tucker. "When they get them out of their lockers, and they'll say, 'Man, I can't go back and let my community down.' That's what we hope that they all do."
The first banquet drew high-level political attention, with a video message from Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, state Attorney General Tim Griffin (himself a colonel in the National Guard), and Rep. French Hill at the head table.
"I spend a lot of time working with our veterans and thanking them for their service," said Hill, the Republican congressman from North Little Rock. "But what a treat and a privilege it is for the community to come together tonight and thank them for enlisting."
Moms and dads also got some support with more than a few tears shed in the audience. Along with their kids, they're also facing fears.
Everyone in the crowd benefits from getting a down payment on the thank-yous for the benefits they will bring to the country.
"Whether you go on active duty or serve in the Guard, or Reserve, it doesn't matter," said Co. Tucker. "You're serving your country. And that's what we're here for."
The local chapter offers sponsorships for the dinner as well as contacts for future events.