On Valentine’s Day 2011, Philipp Zinser told his mother he planned to enlist in the Marine Corps. At the time, he was a 17-year-old senior at Fairfax County’s Robinson Secondary, and his mom’s initial reaction was two parts shock and one part don’t-you-dare.

“I told Philipp, ‘If you want someone to tear you down and humble you and build you back into the person they want you to be, I can do that! You don’t have to enlist,’” Christine Zinser recalls.

The military was foreign to her — she had sent her three older sons to college and expected the same for Philipp. But when she got over the surprise of his announcement, she felt proud of him — and distraught that he and other military enlistees would not be recognized during their high school graduation ceremonies.

Zinser became the driving force behind a campaign to require Fairfax County high schools to honor enlistees during commencement, a measure the county school board will take up Thursday night.

She also founded and now leads the Northern Virginia chapter of Our Community Salutes, an organization that puts together independent graduation ceremonies to honor enlistees and their parents.

Founded in New Jersey in 2009 by Army veteran Kenneth Hartman, Our Community Salutes has spread rapidly. This spring, its chapters will organize ceremonies for enlistees in more than 20 cities around the country.

“These kids need to understand that they’re not second class graduates and their parents aren’t second class citizens,” Hartman said. “They have made a decision that is no less and no more than the kids going to college, and as such should be treated equally.”

Zinser organized Fairfax’s first Our Community Salutes ceremony last spring with support from politicians including Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia) and county Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock). Eleven Robinson students were recognized.

“They’re putting themselves in harm’s way voluntarily, and not one of them isn’t aware of what the outcome could be,” Zinser said. “I think they deserve recognition.”

This year, Zinser is planning a springtime ceremony to honor all Fairfax high school seniors who have enlisted in the military. For more information, visit the Our Community Salutes Web site.

Read more:

Fairfax County debates honors for high school graduates enlisting in military