Homecoming: A Story of Connections

By: Hannah Frenchick

On his second hometown trip, Maj. Gen. Allan M. Pepin, commanding general of the Joint-Task Force-National Capital Region/U.S. Army Military District of Washington and Command Sgt. Maj. Julian Ayers, command sergeant major of U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own,” and Soldiers from The 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), the Operational Support Airlift Activity Detachment, and The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” told their stories and showcased their talents in support of the New England Recruiting Battalion and the U.S. Army Recruiting Command in Boston, April 3-8, 2023. U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. XaViera Masline (CN110)

Massachusetts is known for many things: The Boston Red Sox, Dunkin’ Donuts and the distinctive accent of its residents. For Maj. Gen. Allan M. Pepin, commanding general of the Joint-Task Force-National Capital Region/U.S. Army Military District of Washington (MDW), Massachusetts is home.  

Pepin, who grew up in Tewskbury, Mass. and later went to college at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, is the first to tell you that when he was commissioned into the Army through the ROTC program that his plan was to complete only his initial commitment, but that all changed once he was in.  

“Once I joined, I fell in love with the with the military, the leadership,” said Pepin. “The reason I'm still in today is because of interaction with every new Soldier; their commitment and watching young Soldiers grow inspires me.” 

On his second hometown trip, Pepin was accompanied by Command Sgt. Maj. Julian Ayers, command sergeant major of U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own,” and brought four soldiers from the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), one from Operational Support Airlift Activity Detachment, seven from The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” and seven from The U.S. Army Drill Team to tell their stories and showcase their talents in support of the New England Recruiting Battalion and the U.S. Army Recruiting Command in an initiative designed reach everyday people in cities across the country.  

The MDW team focused on engaging with students, school administrators, and local and state government officials.  

“Our soldiers are telling their stories, it personalizes [it],” said Pepin. “Their stories actually resonate much more than just a bulletin board or a flyer, because now you have a connection. So, when you talk to a Soldier who's not actually a recruiter, I think it brings down the guard because they're just telling their story.” 

One of the soldiers Pepin brought on his second hometown trip was Pfc. Jeremyah Santiago, an Motor Transport Operator in The Old Guard.  

“My senior year, I got injured playing football and that was my way to get out of the street and messing around,” said Santiago, from Lowell, Mass. “I got injured and I couldn't get my scholarship. Then right after that, I just, I fell hard, started messing around bad in the street. I was like, you know what, I gotta get out of here. So, I went to sign up for the Army. I left like a few days after I graduated.” 

Transitioning from his life in Lowell to Army life was harder than Santiago expected, but knowing where his life could be if he wasn’t in the Army was motivation enough.  

“It was it was tough,” said Santiago. “I didn't have [a] firm foundation. I didn't have [a] father figure, and it was just always me and my mom. Once I went to basic training, I had all these guys in my face yelling at me and I'm just ready to blow up. I just I told myself, ‘Look, if you do that, they're gonna kick you out, and you're gonna wind up dead. You're gonna be dead out there.’ So that's what just kept me going through the whole training.” 

Another soldier that Pepin brought was Sgt. Rachel Keough, a Combat Medic Specialist in The Old Guard.  

“I joined the Army the day I turned 18,” said Keough. “I ended up going on the very last school field trip a few months later, and it was to DC. I got to see the famed 12 o'clock changing of the guard at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and when I was there it was surreal. It just felt like I needed to be there. It felt like I saw my future in front of me.” 

After basic training and advanced individual training Keough arrived at The Old Guard. She said she told her platoon sergeant about her aspirations to become a Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. He suggested that she take the time to learn her trade of medic. 

After a couple of years of working as a medic, Keough began the training to reach her dream of becoming a sentinel for the TUS. Her path didn’t end up quite where she thought it would. 

“I didn't end up earning the badge I ended up falling pretty ill. I was walking, walking the mat that is,” said Keough, who hails from Monson, Mass.  “I would have to take timeouts for a couple of weeks at a time after a few months of being there. I was really emotional over the whole thing. I had wanted to do it for so long and it was really the passion. They allowed me to have the last walk so I was able to still place roses and kind of feel like I could close out that chapter. I got sponsored to be part of the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier so I can still kind of give back, be involved with the mission and educate people around the world about the Tomb.” 

Throughout the visit the MDW team participated in several engagements to include two school visits at New Bedford High School and Madison Park Vocational Technical High School.  

“As the students were entering the auditorium, the band was playing, which set the stage for an exciting presentation,” said Jennifer McGuire, College and Career Information Coordinator, New Bedford Public Schools. “The soldiers who shared their experiences with the students were clearly passionate about their path. It was evident that whether a student is interested in a military opportunity or not, there was value in hearing about the Soldiers’ journeys. The event is something that could be valuable to have annually.” 

Engagements like the one at New Bedford gave Soldiers the opportunity to make personal connections.  

“I remember when I was in school, I didn't want to listen to someone who was older,” said Santiago. “You know, I'm like, ‘they don't know what they're talking about.’ I feel like whenever they hear me talking to them, it's like, ‘Alright, you know, like, this is like one of my friends here. Like, I understand what he's saying.’” 

New Bedford Students had the opportunity to talk with the Soldiers in a more casual format.  

“At the conclusion of the formal presentation, a number of students remained in the auditorium, anxious to ask questions of the presenters,” said McGuire. “The team willingly answered individual questions, chatting informally with the students until they were asked to vacate the space due to another event in the auditorium. This demonstrated to the students that the event was not simply a large-scale assembly, but that the representatives were genuinely interested in the students themselves.” 

While neither Keough nor Santiago visited the high school they attended, it was still a full circle moment for them.  

“I get to circle back around,” said Keough. “I get to come back home. Even though I'm not visiting my actual high school, it felt like yet another thing that was falling in place. “Everything happens for a reason, and getting to go on this trip was [the] reason.” 

Pepin said that the stories of local Veterans were just as important as the stories of his Soldiers when it comes to making the connection with recruitment age people. 

“Sometimes you're the best recruiters because if you don't tell your story, you know that you just look like you're someone who served but there's no connection,” said Pepin as he spoke to a group of local and state leaders in Lawrence, Mass. that included members of the Disabled American Veterans.  

The trip concluded with a visit to Clear Path for Veterans New England, a non-profit group that provides Veterans with services to help them reintegrate into their communities successfully in Devens, Mass.  

The team met with generations of veterans who served from WWII all the way through to veterans who have recently returned home.  

Pepin reiterated that creating and maintaining community connections is crucial to all stages of military service from recruitment, to serving to post-service life.  

“We've got phenomenal folks here that are trying to connect the American public with the Army,” said Pepin. “What we're trying to do is reach out to make sure there's a connection with communities. And it's easy when we do it from a community we came from.”