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Editorial: Academy strengthened, changed lives of graduates

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This country’s involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan exacted terrible tolls, especially among the thousands of men and women who were sent into harm’s way.

Ironically, it also gave new lives to hundreds of men and women in uniform who, had it not been for the opportunities presented through unusual circumstances, could have faced bleak futures.

Sadly, the door has now been shut to others who would seek to pursue those opportunities in the future.

Earlier this month Casing of the Colors ceremonies were staged at the Indiana National Guard’s Muscatatuck Urban Training Center to officially mark the end of a special unit created three years earlier as part of the mobilization of forces for the conflicts in the Middle East.

The last graduating class from the Patriot Academy had departed from the Jennings County facility in 2012, but several of the graduates from that and earlier classes returned for the ceremonies marking the official end of the unique project.

The academy was created at the height of both conflicts at a time when many thousands of military personnel were deployed to combat zones. The training complexes at nearby Camp Atterbury and its sister operation in Jennings County were the primary deployment areas.

To fill the personnel needs of two separate military operations, the U.S. Army had lowered standards, doing away with the requirement that volunteers, especially those from activated National Guard units, have a high school diploma.

While hundreds of men and women without diplomas were accepted into service, it was imperative that they be provided the skill levels needed in today’s military.

Indiana National Guard and Pentagon officials took a creative approach in addressing this problem, establishing a fully operational high school where those without diplomas could complete their secondary educations. The project was wildly successful from a number of perspectives.

In the closing ceremonies at the complex that was once home to a mental health facility — Muscatatuck State Developmental Center — Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger, adjutant general of the Indiana National Guard, noted that 505 soldiers had received high school diplomas from the academy. He spoke of those graduates in terms of “lives that have been helped.”

Certainly the academy had a tremendous benefit for the armed forces in that it provided hundreds of now-skilled soldiers for units that often have to deal with complex situations.

One of those soldiers who returned for the final ceremonies had gone on from the Patriot Academy to complete an Army medic course and is now working toward a nursing degree.

Umbarger expressed disappointment at the closing, but the end was inevitable. With the end of direct military involvement in Iraq and the expected withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan next year, the military is now in drawdown mode. Pre-2001 requirements for high school graduation will be put back in place, eliminating the need for such a facility.

But during its short tenure, the Patriot Academy not only strengthened the armed forces but provided 505 individuals with opportunities that can be built upon throughout their lives.

As the Patriot Academy fades into the background, it is important to provide a message to those who created it, those who taught at it and those who benefited from it: Well done!

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