BUTLERVILLE — Since the Patriot Academy at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center opened three years ago, 505 soldiers have received their Indiana high school diploma through the program.
On Nov. 20, Pfc. Jonathen Uchman, the last student-soldier at the academy, walked across the gymnasium stage to receive his diploma from the academy’s commandant, Lt. Col. Kenny Freeman.
“It’s a strange feeling to not only be in the last class but also the last student,” Uchman said.
Uchman grew up in Gary and dropped out of high school in order to be closer to his then fiancée 400 miles away.
“I guess it wasn’t too bad, though, because it gave me a chance to come here,” Uchman said.
On May 22, 2009, the Patriot Academy accepted its first student. The academy was to be a three-year National Guard Bureau pilot program to help high school dropouts who wanted to join the National Guard earn their high school diploma.
In 2012, the decision was made not to extend the program, and Class 11-12 became the academy’s final graduating class.
The 21 student soldiers representing 15 states took advantage of being given a second chance to earn their high school diploma, pushing themselves to learn and give back to the local community.
“The community service we did has been the most memorable part of being here for me,” said Pfc. Shawn LeRoy of Lafayette, La. “I’ve never experienced a tornado before. But after the Holton tornado, I got to help people and especially kids. That changed my life.”
For some, it was the physical challenge they had never experienced that made the Patriot Academy experience worthwhile.
Pvt. James Cross, who will attend Advanced Individual Training to become a motor transport operator for the Michigan National Guard, remembers a particular event that pushed him to his limit.
“The Norwegian Ruck March (30 kilometer or 18.6 mile road march) has made the biggest impact on me while at the Patriot Academy,” he said, “because of the preparation we had to do and the teamwork involved. We were doing road marches three to four months before to prepare for it.”
He said he did pretty well for the first 10 miles and started feeling the strain of road marching while carrying a 25-pound pack through mile 15, but the final three miles were almost more than he could do.
“If it wasn’t for my battle buddies that were with me, I probably wouldn’t have made it,” Cross said.
Indiana Assistant Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Clif Tooley was the guest speaker during the graduation ceremony.
“It has been a real blessing for our country, our Army, and for the young men and women who have gone through here,” Tooley said. “It’s given an opportunity for these great Americans to do two things: don the uniform and serve this great country that we belong to and to achieve what is, undoubtedly, one of the major goals of the 21st century which is to secure a valid educational degree. I’m proud of you all.”
The real pride could be seen in the faces of the parents who were able to attend the graduation ceremony. Uchman’s father, John, traveled from Elwood to watch his son receive his diploma.
“He did this all himself,” John Uchman said. “Jon found the school, went to the recruiter, made the decision to come here. It was a decision that took a great deal of thought, but it was all him. I’m very proud of him.”
Uchman had no idea that his son would be the final graduate until he heard his name announced.
“This is a wonderful facility that has done a lot of good for our kids,” Uchman added. “I’m honored that my son went here.”