Honoring future vets

Union City plaza dedicated to U.S. Marine Corps and JROTC

Under the light of a full moon, the day before Veterans Day, and on the Marine Corps’ 236th birthday, Mayor Brian Stack and the Union City Board of Commissioners dedicated a plaza to the members of the city’s Junior ROTC. The cadets stood at attention en masse and in uniform, lined up along the side of the plaza located on the busy corner of Hudson and 30th Street.
Stack deemed the JROTC “the pride and joy of Union City.” He announced to an audience full of proud parents and community members, “I hear from all the municipalities in Hudson County how Union City is the envy of [other towns thanks to] the professional, courteous and wonderful young men and women here.”
ROTC stands for Reserve Officer Training Corps and helps train young men and women for the armed forces.

“[The JROTC] is the pride and joy of Union City.” –Mayor Brian Stack
Stack said he hopes that the plaza will help people recognize and remember their veterans — past, current and future — every time they pass by. Given the high traffic volume around the plaza, lots of people are likely to.
Union City High School gives students — freshmen through seniors — the opportunity to join the Junior ROTC as an elective. The program, run by Gunnery Sergeants Caonabo Reyes and Miguel Quiñones, currently boasts around 250 cadets, about a 50-50 mix of girls and boys. Approximately 125 of those students are freshmen.
Seventeen-year-old Marine Corps JROTC Commanding Officer Noel Velacquez has spent two years in the program, and was promoted to his high rank by his gunneries in the beginning of his senior year.
“It takes a lot of discipline,” Noel said. “You have to know how to take charge and make people listen.”
Noel joined the JROTC because, he said, he was interested in taking more of a leadership role amongst his peers. Although his favorite part is competing in drill competitions, he enjoys the community service aspect of the group as well.
Reyes said the JROTC constantly participates in and helps out with community events, like parades and senior luncheons. He estimated that they bring in 5,000 to 10,000 toys for Toys for Tots each year for the holiday season.

The leadership behind the leadership

During the dedication ceremony, Commissioner Maryury Martinetti presented a citation of appreciation from the State Senate to Quiñones. “We are so proud of our cadets,” she said. “They represent our city with what they do and the way they behave. And to those who lead them: thank you, thank you, for the great job you do.”
Quiñones has been working with the students of the Union City JROTC for the past year. He came to the city because of the great potential for growth he saw in the program, he said.
Reyes received a citation during the ceremony as well “for all of the work, dedication and commitment he’s shown, and all the time he’s given to our young men and women in the Junior ROTC program,” Town Commissioner Chris Irizarry said.
Reyes has spent 13 years with the Union City High School JROTC. When he first began, he said, he’d come in at 6 a.m. and leave at 6 p.m.; and, like Quiñones, his desire to give back quickly became the light of his life.
“This is what I live for,” Reyes said. “This is what allows me to go on.” He loves how the program helps keep kids off drugs, off the streets, out of gangs. For the girls, he said, it helps them avoid teenage pregnancy.

A bright future for cadets

As a shining example of Reyes’ commitment, his former JROTC student and Army pilot, Stalin Espinao, attended the dedication ceremony. Espinao graduated from Union City High School in 2004, and is now a safety coordinator for JFK, Newark, Teterboro, and LaGuardia airports. He often returns to Union City to encourage JROTC students to stay off the streets and go to college. “I’ve never been turned down for a job,” he said, “and it all started with the JROTC.”
Reyes is extremely proud of his current students. “We have one of the best marching teams in all of the Northeast,” he said. This year they have been invited to compete at Daytona Beach, Fla., but need to raise about $25,000 to fund the trip, he said. Fundraisers are in the works.
For more information on the program or to inquire about donations, call the Union City JROTC at (201) 319-036.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at gpope@hudsonreporter.com

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