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MAUSTON, Wis. — When they arrived at the Wisconsin National Guard’s Challenge Academy at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin nearly six months ago, cadets from across the state brought with them only a few personal belongings as well as a sense that how they had been navigating their lives was not working.

During a June 17 graduation ceremony, 107 cadets left the residential phase of Challenge Academy with a sense of accomplishment, improved decision-making skills, and a reinforced character.

“Cadets, life is about character,” said Kevin Greenwood, Challenge Academy director. “How many times have we heard life is about choices? I firmly believe that the most important principle that guides us in making more right choices and less wrong choices is the strength of our character — the integrity to do what is right in spite of personal sacrifices.”

sm160617-Z-EJ222-165.jpgDonald Weber, president of Logistics Health Corporation in La Crosse, Wisconsin, spoke of labels, and revealed that as a high school student he would have been an ideal Challenge Academy candidate.

“Like many of you, I struggled in school — I was not a good student,” Weber, a Vietnam combat veteran, said. “I was often absent, and when I was in class I was distracted and tired. I ran with the wrong crowd. I was labeled a bad kid — a failure.

“When you came to Challenge Academy, you may have heard some of these labels — troublemaker, loser, delinquent, lost cause, stoner, selfish, violent, lazy, low self-esteem, unmotivated, partier, dropout, failure,” he continued. “Those words don’t feel very good, do they? Let them go. After all that you’ve been through, all your hard work, and all you’ve accomplished, they no longer define you.”

Weber recalled that several of his high school teachers doubted if he would ever amount to anything, and admitted he gave them reason to think that way.

sm160617-Z-EJ222-199.jpg“I made bad choices,” he said. “I lacked motivation when it came to school. Personally, I didn’t even know if I could get my diploma on graduation day because I struggled in school in almost every possible way.”

Weber joined the Marine Corps right after high school, and soon after deployed to Vietnam. Seeing fellow Marines killed on the battlefield forced him to put life into perspective.

“I wanted to survive, so I chose to grow up and take responsibility,” he said. “I know now that joining the Marines not only changed my life, it saved my life. And I know for many of you, Challenge Academy has done the very same thing.”

Weber said he faced challenges and failures after leaving the Marines, but he was determined not to give up, and encouraged the graduating cadets to persevere.

“You have a greatness within you, and you are only beginning to see where it can take you,” he said.

sm160617-Z-EJ222-131.jpgCadet Adam Kaschel, the distinguished honor graduate, spoke about choices.

“Somehow, we recognize that life does not get better by chance,” Kaschel said. “It gets better by change, and that requires new choices.

“I find it funny when someone says ‘he made me angry’ or ‘she made me angry,’ or ‘I was just running with the wrong crowd.’ No, you choose to be angry,” Kaschel continued, “just like you choose the crowd you hang around with, just like you choose to be optimistic, resilient or productive. Your mindset affects your behaviors. It is a choice — cadets, it is your choice.

“You are free to make decisions, but you are not free to choose the consequences,” Kaschel said. “Cadets, choose wisely and make your choices count.”

Greenwood said that with this class, the Wisconsin National Guard’s Challenge Academy had graduated more than 3,300 cadets since 1998. This class boasts an 80 percent high school equivalency diploma success rate, and 53 cadets earned academic honors. En route to graduation, cadets logged 25,894 classroom hours and more than 10,000 study hall hours. They collectively marched nearly 15,000 miles to and from class, and each cadet ran approximately 205 miles during their residential phase. Each cadet performed 74 hours of community service.

Challenge Academy uses military values and a military environment to instill values and character traits that help cadets make better life choices. Sam Owens, who mentored Cadet Ivon Beckman, saw first-hand the changes the Academy brought about.

sm160617-Z-EJ222-237.jpg“His confidence has gotten really strong — he’s able to make decisions,” Owens said. “It was tough, though. All in all, while he was being challenged, he was pretty determined not to quit. While they’re changing his thinking and giving him a different outlook, they’re also making him more confident, allowing him to make better decisions.”

Owens said Beckman will head to Vicksburg, Mississippi after graduation to work for AmeriCorps.

“He’s pretty excited about that,” Owens said.

Karen Smothers watched her grandson David Smothers graduate Challenge Academy.

“It’s a wonderful program,” she said. “It’s really helped David to mature and get self-esteem. When he was in school he had very low self-esteem, he wasn’t doing well — he didn’t even care. But he’s grown up and he’s got plans. I hope when he gets home that he follows through with it.”

Eric Britton said he was very proud of his son, Eric Britton Jr.

“I just found out he got ‘most improved cadet,’” the elder Britton said. “When he first learned about the academy he was dead set against it. It took me awhile to just get him to sit down and watch the videos — he told me he’d think about it. Getting him here was half the battle.

“The last time he was home, when he had to get his plan in place, he was a lot more confident,” Britton said of his son. “Standing up straighter, he was able to deal with negativity or not getting exactly what he wanted without a lot of problem. Before that was not the case. Now he has direction — he knows what he wants to do.”

Cadet Nicholas Rueden credited Challenge Academy with keeping him out of jail.

“I saw the effect that my actions were having on my family, and the negative influences that were impacting me,” Rueden said. “I saw this as an opportunity to change my life. I feel like I matured a lot — resilient, humble, respect for authority.”

Cadet Claytin Frank said Challenge Academy repaired his relationship with his family.

“I needed the Challenge Academy because I wasn’t going to school, I was doing a lot of drugs, I had no relationship with my family,” Frank said. “I needed Challenge Academy to graduate high school, to get clean, to get my life on track.”

Frank said now he is more positive and appreciative of his family. He said he no longer takes things for granted.

“If I didn’t come to the Academy, I’d be either dead or in jail,” he said. “The Academy saved my life.”

Graduating cadets and hometownsALTOONA: Nicklaus Noonan APPLETON: Tristan Grawein, Alexander Hayes, Evan Severson, Andrew Jon Tretinyak BALSAM LAKE: Anthony Bloom BARABOO: Spencer Knight BAYFIELD: Mikayla Topping-Defoe BEAVER DAM: Claytin Frank BELOIT: Tytrell Brewer, Joanna Estrada, Alondra Gallardo, Roshawna Hill, Shawn Olson, Daniel Rodriguez, Antonia Swatek, Michael Valdivia, Alexandria Walker, Darian Williams, Sharee Wortham BLACK RIVER FALLS: Bellamy Cayou, Ceslie Conway, David Smothers, Anthony Spurling BLAIR: Angel Mendoza; BRODHEAD: Tyler Parker BUTLER: Adam Kaschel CAMP DOUGLAS: Emily Barrett CASCADE: Isaac DeVerney CEDARBURG: Austin Baumann CHIPPEWA FALLS: Cade Beaudette, Nicholas Rueden, Katie Walters ELCHO: Tierra Walters FITCHBURG: Mayreli Applebee FOND DU LAC: Norah Grabinski FOUNTAIN CITY: Bruce McColl FREDONIA: Brandon Gaedtke GREEN BAY: Omar Hernandez, Jayveon Jolly, Leonardo Mosqueda, Edward Skippergosh, Jonah Thao, Yasmeen Umanzor, Amber Wendrick GREENDALE: Kyle Schlicke GREENVILLE: Taylor Burton HARTLAND: Michael Kemp HAYWARD: Robert Jack HILLSBORO: Trenton Clark HINGHAM: Adam Weiley IRON RIVER: Arthur Palomo III JANESVILLE: Nicholas Buggs JEFFERSON: Nicholas Burow, Dominic Woychik KENOSHA: Andrea Montezuma LA CROSSE: James Schaller LAC DU FLAMBEAU: Ramone Linklater MANITOWOC: Malachi Plocher MARATHON: Kong Xiong MAUSTON: Benjamin Armitage, Jonathan Wood MENOMONEE FALLS: Daniel Jones MILTON: Scott Holloway, Clayton Machgan, Aaron Nigh MILWAUKEE: Ivon Beckman, Anthony Bogust, Juan Bucio, Cristian Colon Teran, Mark Dano, Evan Grabowski, Dante Hopkins-Harrington, Kole Jopek, Connor Kisley, Alfonso Lopez III, Nathan Paddock, Anahi Peralta Gomez, Christopher Redmon, Jonathan Spingola, Jose Zelaya Prado MONROE: Chad Fortney MONTELLO: Amber Crook MOUNT HOREB: Dartainion Olson NEENAH: Robert Lieber, Colton Parsons NEKOOSA: Alex Frick, Jacob Meyer NEW AUBURN: Austin Curry NEW LISBON: Nathan Brockman NEW LONDON: Cody Spears, Michael Tischauser, Nathaniel Tucker PLYMOUTH: Dyllan Konen RACINE: Justin Makela REEDSBURG: Scott Bunde RHINELANDER: Eric Britton, Matthew Taulbut, Jr. SHEBOYGAN: Byron Perez SPOONER: Wyatt Faircloth STEVENS POINT: Emily Hendrix, Christian Morter SUAMICO: Serena Thompson SUN PRAIRIE: Howard Steel WAUKESHA: Spencer Laack WHITEWATER: Matthew Wiese WINNECONNE: Dillan McCain

MOST IMPROVED CADET: Claytin Frank, James Schaller, Eric Britton, Jr., Sharee Wortham
CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: Jacob Meyer, Dante Hopkins-Harrington, Jonah Thao, Anahi Peralta Gomez (Best Overall); Omar Hernandez, Nicklaus Noonan, Jonathan Spingola, Alexandria Walker (Most Improved)
MATH ACHIEVEMENT: Connor Kisley, Alfonso Lopez III, Malachi Plocher, Nicholas Rueden
MATH IMPROVEMENT: Cade Beaudette, Juan Bucio, Jr., Omar Hernandez, Sharee Wortham
LANGUAGE ARTS ACHIEVEMENT: Mayreli Applebee, Tytrell Brewer, Clayton Machgan, James Schaller
LANGUAGE ARTS IMPROVEMENT: Anthony Bogust, Antonia Swatek, Nathaniel Tucker, Jonathan Wood
SCIENCE ACHIEVEMENT: Leonardo Mosqueda, Aaron Nigh, Arthur Palomo III, Darian Williams
SCIENCE IMPROVEMENT: Omar Hernandez, Nicklaus Noonan, David Smothers, Matthew Taulbut, Jr.
SOCIAL STUDIES ACHIEVEMENT: Michael Kemp, Bruce McColl, Christian Morter, Katie Walters
SOCIAL STUDIES IMPROVEMENT: Brandon Gaedtke, Roshawna Hill, Howard Steel, Alexandria Walker
PHYSICAL FITNESS: Nathan Brockman (Best Overall), Omar Hernandez (Most Improved)