Marines talk with Salinas students
Its enemies have tramped on its white stars and burned holes in its broad stripes. Still, that red, white and blue U.S. flag endures.
Such was the message brought by two Marines to Marsha Epps-Gularte’s sixth-grade class Monday at Sherwood School, 110 South Wood St. in Salinas.
Staff Sgt. Vincent Ramirez Jr., precise in his dark-blue uniform, white belt and glinting golden medals, stepped to the front and hit the high points.
“On one level, the flag is about freedom,” Ramirez told the students. “It means having the chance to do what you want to with your life.
“Liberty. Justice. That dream to be free.”
Freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Treasure them, he told the children. Protect those values.
The sixth-graders got a two-for-one lesson into both the deeper meanings of Old Glory and the values of military life itself, especially in the Marine Corps.
The flag’s very presence — passing in a parade, for example — encompasses such diverse aspects of the American experience as national pride and power, U.S. history, freedom of speech and religion, and reverence for lives lost on the battlefield.
To name but a few.
To capture a sense of many of these aspects compressed into one profoundly powerful visual moment, think only of Feb. 23, 1945.
That was the day that five Marines and a Navy corpsman raised the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi during the vicious World War II battle with the Japanese for Iwo Jima.
“I want the students to think about what freedom costs and about defense of the nation,” Epps-Gularte said.
Daily at 10 a.m., right before recess, her students pause. They tilt their bright, young faces toward the small flag hanging above the classroom door.
They place their hands over their hearts and, in tones measured and respectful, recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
For Ramirez, his appearance in the classroom was, in a way, a homecoming.
The 28-year-old serves as the Salinas-area Marine Corps recruiter, but he’s also a native of the city, including its meaner streets.
“Growing up, it could be a difficult scene with gang violence and drugs,” he said.
It was his mother’s example as a hardworking, focused parent that kept him in line, Ramirez said.
“She taught me that life was about values and about hard work,” he said.
Ramirez attended Everett Alvarez High School. He joined the Marines Corps, with parental consent, at age 17. He’s now a 10-year veteran. He’s lived in Japan and, among other things, has served as a “range coach,” teaching Marines to shoot.
With Ramirez at the front of the class stood Marine Corps Pvt. Erika Garcia. A North Salinas High School graduate, she’s been in the service five months.
“I’d never thought I’d join the military, even less the Marine Corps,” Garcia said. “Turned out the Corps became a calling. So far, I love it.”
She plans to stay in for four years, then return to Salinas to work in law enforcement.
Ramirez began his presentation with a brief review of U.S. flag history that included seamstress Betsy Ross, believed by many to have made the first such flag.
A deeper appreciation
Bill Maker, longtime crusader for respecting the flag and the best of what it represents, introduced the Marines to the class.
Maker served in the Marine Corps for four years. He’s a member also of the Marine Corps League Detachment 711.
A neighbor of Epps-Gularte, Maker arranged for Garcia and Ramirez to visit her class.
“When you see the flag passing, stand up out of respect,” Ramirez told the students. “Take your hat off. Put your hand over your heart.”
The students packed the minutes with back-to-back questions about the flag and about life in the military.
Ruben Bravo, 12, thought the military would make “a cool career.”
“Very rewarding and self-fulfilling,” Bravo said. “Though I’d like to be an architect, too.”
Marissa Amparo, 12, would consider the Marine Corps as a career, though studying law interested her, too.
While combat readiness remains among the highest Marine Crops priorities, helping others, such as was done in the wake of the tsunami in Japan, are also paramount missions, Ramirez said.
“No matter what you do decide to do in life, study hard, do well in school, stay out of trouble and respect others,” he told the students.
In new light
Chances are the students will never see the flag in the same light as before, said Epps-Gularte, a teacher for 14 years.
A week before, her students had brainstormed questions they planned to ask. When it came time, each child rose and faced their classroom guests.
“We learned a lot more today about why we say the Pledge of Allegiance,” Epps-Gularte said. “We also got a lot of information about what it is like to be a Marine and in the military.”
Even after Ramirez and Garcia left, the discussion continued.
“The kids couldn’t stop talking about it,” the teacher said.
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