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Patriot Academy student-soldiers earn diplomas

By John Crosby | Indiana National Guard | March 22, 2010

MUSCATATUCK URBAN TRAINING CENTER, Ind., - Patriot Academy, the military's first accredited high school, graduated its first class here yesterday.

The program provides youth with an opportunity to earn their high school diploma, join the Army National Guard and contribute to their community.

After a year of planning, the vision of retired Army Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn, former director of the Army National Guard, to turn high school dropouts into student-soldiers became reality in June with the funding and support of the National Guard Bureau.

"This is about the young men and women who will have a second chance," said Army Maj. Gen. Raymond Carpenter, acting director of the Army National Guard, on the program's opening day in August. "Our mission at the Patriot Academy, very simply, is to educate and train these young men to become the best citizen-soldiers in the Army National Guard."

Students of the Patriot Academy come here after completing Army basic training. They continue to collect active-duty pay, taking classes to earn their high school diploma, while simultaneously honing their military skills before graduating and shipping out to learn their military job.

"It's really a good opportunity," said Army Sgt. 1st Class William Long, an instructor and assistant platoon sergeant. "The average National Guard soldier drills one weekend a month, two weeks a year. These guys do almost a year of active duty before they meet their unit. These guys are going to have a better head start to that."

Additionally, the course is designed to prepare the student-soldiers to contribute to society.

"There were three objectives when they came here," said Patriot Academy Commandant Army Col. Perry Sarver. "First one, of course, was to get their high school diploma. Second was to expand on their military skills that they learned in basic training, and finally, they provide eight hours of community service in and around the Jennings County area."

The program was implemented during a "dropout crisis" in America, as over 1.2 million students, equating to 7,000 per school day, either drop out or do not earn their high school diploma, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education.

"There's hundreds of thousands of young men and women who have not achieved their high school diploma, and the Army National Guard provides these young men and women an opportunity to do that," Sarver said.

Today's graduating class consisted of 38 of the original 47 student-soldiers from 16 states who started the course. They will return to their respective states' National Guard after receiving military occupational training.

Plans are under way for the program's growth. "We are trying to diversify our next class," Sarver said. "What we want to do is grow our enrollment from 47 from this past year to try to graduate 300 men and women from the 54 states and territories."

The graduates' families, command sergeants major and recruiters attended the graduation ceremony to show their support. The class valedictorian said his newly earned high school diploma was a new beginning for him.

"It's a great opportunity to be here," said Pvt. Mario Guillen of the Texas Army National Guard. "I hope to make the best of it. Before I came into the Patriot Academy, I worked for a low salary. [The course] has changed my life. I can pass the obstacles that I have in front of me. Now I have a better view of my future because of the education I got here." Guillen will move on to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., to for truck driver training.

Fellow student Pfc. Scott Mix of Fort Wayne, Ind., said he came to the program to better himself by getting his high school diploma to expand his opportunities and horizons.

"It's been an adventure," he said. "A lot of military training and a lot of schooling and [physical training], but it was definitely worth it."

Mix said he did not have enough credits to graduate from high school with his class, and wanted to earn more than a general education diploma. He went to an Army National Guard recruiter and joined the Patriot Academy at age 18.

"I definitely grew up a lot," he said. "My maturity level has increased an awful lot. I was getting into a lot of trouble, and I wasn't staying focused. Since I came here, everything is more straight-edged and disciplined. Everything is always business. My whole mentality has changed. I'm definitely a lot more focused now."

Mix's mother said she couldn't agree more.

"He is a lot more disciplined," Christa Wilfong said. "I've noticed he has a lot more respect for others. He seems to really be looking toward the future instead of just living for the day. He is setting a lot more goals."

As the first graduating class packs its bags, including their newly achieved high school diplomas, the instructors, commanders and creators of the Patriot Academy stay committed to taking lost or misguided potential and molding it into positive contributions to society.

"They get a chance for a do-over," Sarver said. "Society has given up on some of these young people for whatever reason, and they were led to believe that they would never achieve their high school diploma.

"When they first came in, back in June and July, they were lacking the focus," he continued. "They were lacking the confidence. When they leave here they believe they can accomplish anything in their lives. When they leave here, they will be a more mature adult to assume their role in society as they get back home."