Let Me Tell You About My Gang
By Sgt. Amanda Hay, Recruiting Station New Jersey
| | June 22, 2000
It's not often that you hear the Marine Corps being described as a gang. But when Lt. Col. Ismael Ortiz, assistant chief of staff of advertising for Marine Corps Recruiting Command, recently used a gang comparison as an attention gainer at Thomas Edison High School, in Philadelphia, Pa., the crowd grew silent.
Ortiz, a South Bronx, N.Y. native, knew just how to grab the attention of the 300 students in attendance.
He was the guest speaker for the school's annual memorial in honor of their 64 students who lost their lives during the Vietnam War.
The theme of the event was "The legacy of hope-cost of freedom." And by the looks on the kids' faces, hope is exactly what Ortiz helped to instill in them.
After introducing himself and giving some background about where he grew up, he shared stories of how he found his way in life. He emphasized how he knew what it's like to grow up in the streets, hang out with friends and get into trouble.
When he was in his late teens, he realized that maybe trouble wasn't the path he wanted to follow. While he was throwing around the thought of what he wanted to do with his life, he said some of his teachers didn't offer much encouragement.
He then spoke proudly of the day he went back to his high school after he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. His purpose for going there was to visit a teacher who told him he would never make anything out of himself.
"I was proud of what I achieved and I wanted to show her. I walked into her classroom and said, 'Thank you for telling me I couldn't do it. And you were right. I didn't amount to anything. I amounted to something."
With that being said, the audience went wild. Ortiz then encouraged the students to have confidence in themselves and not to lose sight of what they want in life.
"There's one thing that no one can ever take away from you," he said. "And that's who you are. You have to believe in yourself, do the right thing and have a good time. Don't rely on other people to make or break you."
Ortiz then jumped to another topic.
He encouraged any gang members to raise their hands. As students looked around at each other, he started asking who thought it was cool to run with a gang.
"Well, let me tell you about my gang," he said. "My gang is so bad that we can wear our colors wherever we want. As a matter of fact-they want us to come in our colors because we are recognized throughout the world."
He went on to invite other Marines and soldiers present to come stand on the stage with him to display their colors. He described his "gang" as a group of people with similar morals and ethics; a group that stands for truth, honor, courage and commitment; a group that not only looks out for each other, but also for the world.
"There are a lot of choices to make in life and you have what it takes to make your own decisions. If you're going to be a part of something, be part of something you can be proud of and keep you on the right path. Stay away from those that'll steer you in the wrong direction. Stay off drugs, stay in school and stay away from the people who run with gangs."
He then brought the topic back to the school and recognized those who died for this country.
"You are all going to be the legacy to this school. It's up to you to carry the legacy. You have a choice to bring honor or bring shame. You all have something to contribute. Remember that."
After a candle-lighting ceremony for the 64 students who died, Doctor Jose Lebron, the principal of Edison High School, then concluded the ceremony and pointed out the importance of being aware of what's going on in life.
"Think about how wonderful it would be to have two lives to live," Lebron said..
For the 64 service members, if they had two lives to live-they'd be here with us today. If you had two lives to live, you could party and do all the other things because you could easily say 'I'll do it the second time. But it doesn't work that way. Time continues - waits for no one.
"You should be asking yourself, 'Am I better off today than I was this morning?' If the answer is no, then you have wasted a day. And before you know it, it's a week, then a year and so on. Make every second count. Focus on your perspective and make the right decision."
As students walked out of the auditorium, it was obvious that their spirits were lifted. They all swarmed around Ortiz to simply say thank you and shake his hand.
It wasn't just his demeanor or New York accent that grabbed the students? attention -- he related to them.
According to Luis Cruz, an 18-year-old senior, Ortiz hit a nerve with him. As the oldest of six children, Cruz said he's leading the way. "I lost two cousins to gang violence and I don't want to lose any brothers to it also. I have to do the right thing, not only for myself-but for them too. I have to set the example.
"I knew I wanted to join the Marines and (Ortiz) just made me even more confident that this is the right choice."