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Sergeant major returns to high school to inspire young people

By JILL HARMACINSKI | The Eagle-Tribune | Published: October 15, 2017

LAWRENCE, Mass. (Tribune News Service) -- Jose Antonio Velazquez was in a TV production class but he really wanted to launch a radio show at Lawrence High School.

So, one day in 1986, while he and veteran Lawrence teacher Mary Jane Kowalski were sitting in the back of the classroom, Velazquez hit her up.

He and his friend Braulio Marte could totally pull off a school a radio show if they got a mixer and a couple of microphones. But they needed her blessing first.

"And she said, 'Yes. Let's give it a try,'" Velazquez recalled.

"That was the most intense and passionate time of my high school career. And none of that would have been possible if that woman didn't take a chance on us," he continued.

Thursday morning, standing in front of dozens of students in a U.S. Army uniform decorated with awards, emblems of rank and distinction, Sgt. Maj. Velazquez spoke about Kowalski's influence on him as a Lawrence High student.

He graduated from Lawrence High in 1988 and joined the Army two years later.

"She changed my life and many others. She made a huge difference," said Velazquez, 47.

Velazquez has served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, Haiti, Japan and mostly recently in a high-ranking public affairs position at the Pentagon.

But Thursday morning, by choice and insistence, Velazquez was back at LHS with a strong and decisive message for dozens of students in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC).

He was selected to give a speech nearby on Friday for Hispanic Heritage Month. But Velazquez said he was intent on returning to Lawrence High to talk to students there about his experiences and attaining their goals.

The students in JROTC uniform gathered standing room only in Kowalski's classroom to hear him speak.

He was frank with the students noting at times in their life they may have been judged for the color of their skin, their gender or gender identity perhaps.

"I have found in the military you are not judged by any of those things. I could be who I wanted to be and excel at the things I wanted to excel at," he said.

In 1988, after graduating from Lawrence High, Velazquez attended broadcasting school in Boston. But he couldn't find a job in the field and he ended up working in a city factory in what he described as a "mind-numbing job."

"I could feel my soul being pulled out of my body," he said.

On Essex Street one day, Velazquez started talking with a Marine Corps veteran who encouraged him. He later enlisted in the Army at a recruiting office nearby.

He thought he'd do four years in the Army and be out. But it's now been 27 years.

"I had really good mentors that pushed me to get through the ranks," said Velazquez, who works in public affairs at the Pentagon. He was promoted to that post in July 2015 becoming the first Hispanic to hold the high-ranking position.

"Whatever you want to be in life, whatever you want to do, it's possible," he said.

Velazquez plans to retire from the military in early 2018. Some kind of a teaching gig may be in his future, he said.

Many of the JROTC students took selfie pictures with Velazquez. And after the students filed out, Kowalski and Velazquez were able to pose for some pictures together, too.

While Velazquez cited Kowalski as an inspiration, the teacher said it is she who is fortunate to see a former student influencing others in such a profound way.

"A goal without action is just a dream," Velazquez said. "If you want it, act toward it."

(c) 2017 The Eagle-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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