Third-Class Petty Officer Jarell Barksdale stood outside the Yankees Clubhouse shop at 245 West 45th Street in Manhattan on Memorial Day weekend. He was fully clad in his crisp dress whites and was leaning against a red, white and blue wall, having purchased baseball jerseys for his wife and eight-month-old son.
A woman walked over and pointed to her purple shirt that read: “My Father Was a Veteran of World War II,” in yellow letters. Petty Officer Barksdale’s face suddenly lit up with excitement; he eagerly shook the woman’s hand and said simply, “Thank you.”
The 22-year-old is the first in his family to join the military; he entered straight out of Hillcrest High School in Simpsonville, S. C., when he was 18. This trip was the first time his unit had come to New York to take part in Fleet Week, a celebration dedicated to members of the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard that extends through Memorial Day weekend.
The experience was special, he said, because of people like that woman in the purple shirt.
“It serves a purpose,” Mr. Barksdale said. “It lets me know, like, there’s a reason for what I’m doing.”
Being the first to join the military in his family came with high expectations.
“They like it and are really proud,” he said. “At first it was hard being the first one, but now it’s not bad.”
Over the weekend, dedicated to remembrance of the nation’s service members who died at war, Mr. Barksdale and E-4 Third Class Petty Officer Berner Figueroa visited One World Trade Center, the site of the terrorists attack on September 11, 2001.
Petty Officer Figueroa, a Paramount, Calif. native, was only 10 years old when terrorists flew two planes into the Twin Towers. Now 28 and visiting the memorial where the towers once stood, put their service into perspective he said. A video showcasing the victims of the attacks had a profound impact on him, he said.
“The first fifteen minutes of that video really showed the impact the attack had on our country,” he said. “To see it now with my perspective as an adult, it hits me differently than when I was younger and didn’t really know what was going on.”
Petty Officer Figueroa, originally from Guatemala came to the U.S. with his parents in 1993, when he was three years old. He joined the military after spending two years at Cerritos College in California. He is a father of two: an 11-month-old daughter and four-year-old son, and his wife is a Marine.
Like Mr. Barksdale, Petty Officer Figueroa was in New York for the first time and described it as a “melting pot of cultures.”
“I’m from a melting pot of cultures, too, but here it’s a focal point on cultures; you can meet anyone,” he said. “This past Friday we met Armenian, Dutch, Italian, French and German people all in one area.” He joked, “No Guatemalans unfortunately.”
Mr. Figueroa rarely went on the road at the start of his career, but after five years spent in Virginia, he has since been around the world. His unit has been sent to Greece, France, Germany, Poland, Israel and more.
“It’s sometimes seven months before I get to physically see my family again,” Mr. Figueroa said. “So it feels good to have somebody shake my hand and tell me ‘Thank you’ for my service.”
A 22-year-old native of Miami, Florida, Sgt. Caesar Mena also became the first in his family to join the military. Although it usually takes four years to become a sergeant, for Sgt. Mena it only took three.
“Having an influence on the Marines to the left and right of me has been one of my favorite parts of my experience,” Sgt. Mena said, motioning to his colleagues. “Just being a leader to them and impacting and influencing their lives and the lives of civilians and my family, who are always watching me.”
Mr. Mena stood in Times Square with his fellow Marines, all three wearing their dress blues. Two older women walked up, first thanking them for their service, then taking a large group photograph before giving each Marine a hug.