Rafael Peña, left, and Noel Zarate, hold a Viking Battalion trophy earned in competition. (Courtesy North Salem JROTC)

This profile is part of a series on Class of 2019 high school graduates. Salem Reporter asked high schools in Salem and Keizer to select an outstanding graduate – someone who accomplished something significant, whether through art, academics, advocacy or overcoming obstacles to graduate.

Rafael Peña and Noel Zarate have been friends since elementary school, when they met playing cops and robbers in the southeast Salem apartment complex where they both lived.

The pair will graduate North Salem High School together this year, then ship off for the next stage of their lives: Marine Corps boot camp.

“They’re the toughest, the few, the proud,” Peña said.

Peña has been interested in a military career for as long as he can remember, though he’ll be the first in his family to serve.

“When people asked about jobs, everything seemed boring to me,” he said.

During those childhood games with Zarate, he’d play as a soldier, giving commands to his friends.

Both boys attended Houck Middle School before their paths diverged.

Zarate went to Early College High School. Peña said his parents wanted him to attend South Salem High School, but he was drawn to the JROTC program at North and enrolled there instead.

By then, Peña said he’d started researching branches of the military and settled on the Marines, in part because they had the coolest vehicles.

“Even as a freshman, he was drawing pictures of helicopters,” Ret. 1st Sgt. James Wagner, who teaches for the program, said.

The Viking Battalion, as it’s known, graduates about 20 students each year, Wagner said. About half will go on to enlist, though not all do so right after graduation.

The program includes class periods and after school activities: morning training sessions at 6 a.m., which Peña described as “PE, but military style” with ample push-ups, pull-ups and running.

Peña enjoyed JROTC from the first day of class.

“I loved it even though I was kind of scared,” he said. Wagner tends to motivate students through tough love, which includes occasional threats.

“He treats us like we’re children of his own - he wants to see us succeed,” Peña said.

That came in handy when Peña was expelled his sophomore year after “some dumb decisions,” as he described it.

Wagner told him, “Something’s wrong because it’s not you” to behave like that, Peña said. The two stayed in touch when Peña moved to Roberts High School for his junior year.

“Roberts was pretty easy. I could have stayed there my senior year,” he said. But he missed Zarate, who had just come to North to be with him, and he missed JROTC. Wagner told him he wanted to see Peña back at North.

Rafael Peña poses in the North Salem High School Library with a Marine Corps flag. (Courtesy North Salem JROTC)

The boys have spent their senior year together drilling with the team and traveled to Daytona Beach to compete in national drill championships.

Asked to describe his soon-to-be-graduates, Wagner said, “They’re knuckleheads.”

But he was quick with praise.

“Raf is the number one leader at the company level that we have this year,” Wagner said.

Zarate is the quieter of the two, he said, less likely to take charge. But he’s come out of his shell as a senior.

“He’s a great team player, a great motivator,” Wagner said.

He predicted both boys could be lance corporals, the third enlisted rank in the Marine Corps, within a few years.

Peña said he may make a career out of the military, but also has interest in behind a mechanic.

His parents came to Salem from Mexico, fleeing cartel violence, and he’d like to be able to sponsor them for citizenship through his service, he said. He’s also interested in being a helicopter pilot.

Zarate enjoys the physical fitness aspect of military service. He enjoys playing pick-up soccer games in his spare time.

He’s not sure he wants to have a military career, but thinks he’ll have good options after serving, whether he chooses to continue or pursues college with GI Bill funding.

“I just want to see where the future takes me,” he said.

Other graduates

McKay senior graduating on time despite starting senior year with half the credits needed

Blanchet grad heading to selective Florence Academy of Art hopes to make career of oil painting

South Salem grad will spend summer studying cancer drug delivery before heading to Yale

After nearly dropping out, West Salem grad earns full ride to WOU

Aspiring engineer Beatriz Perez graduating from Teen Parent Program

Reporter Rachel Alexander: rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.

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