MUSCATATUCK URBAN TRAINING CENTER, Ind. (Army News Service, March 19, 2010) -- The military's first ever accredited high school, the Patriot Academy, graduated its first class Thursday at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center near Butlerville, Ind.

The program is aimed at combating the nation's growing high school dropout rates by providing 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, Director of the Army National Guard retired Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn's vision to turn high school dropouts into student-Soldiers became reality in June 2009 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 Acting Director of the Army National Guard Maj. Gen. Raymond Carpenter 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 to MUTC after completion of 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 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 gonna 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 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 community service in and around the Jennings County area."

The program was implemented during a 'dropout crises' in America as more than 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," said Sarver.

This graduating class consisted of 38 of the original 47 student-Soldiers who started the course, originating from 16 different states. Each Soldier will return to his respective state's National Guard after receiving their military occupational training.

"We are trying to diversify our next class," said Sarver. "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 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 be moving onto Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., to earn his military occupational specialty as a truck driver.

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," said Mix. "A lot of military training and a lot of schooling and [physical training] but it was definitely worth it."

Mix did not have enough credits to graduate 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 18 years of age.

"I definitely grew up a lot," said Mix. "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."

His mother, who came to show her support at her son's graduation, said she couldn't agree more.

"He is a lot more disciplined," said Mix's mother, Christa Wilfong. "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 their bags, to include a newly achieved high school diploma, 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," said Sarver. "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. They were lacking the confidence. When they leave here they believe they can accomplish anything in their lives."

Page last updated Fri March 19th, 2010 at 16:21