News: Soldier learns to succeed from those who didn't give up on her
Story by Capt. Kyle Key
BUTLERVILLE, Ind. - Pvt. Jennifer H. Roberts now knows that the direction of her life was diverted from disaster, and is grateful to the South Carolina Army National Guard for giving her a second and even a third chance.
In 2010, the Lugoff native made it to the second semester of her senior year at Lugoff-Elgin High School and dropped out. But Roberts wasn’t alone. According to the Alliance for Education, approximately 30,000 of her fellow seniors across South Carolina didn’t graduate that year.
“I was hanging out with the wrong people and skipping class,” said Roberts. “I never wanted to go to school or listen to the teachers. Going to school was my last priority.”
Roberts said she never thought about her decision until she received a letter from Staff Sgt. Lorraine M. Lordy, a South Carolina Army National Guard recruiter in Camden. Her mother, Lisa Staszak, encouraged her to look into it.
“My mom was like, ‘Oh, you need to go see her. She’s going to help you get your life figured out.’ So my mom and I went to the National Guard recruiting office at the Camden Armory. We were talking to my recruiter and first of all, I asked ‘can I get in without a high school diploma?’ She was like, ‘we’ve got this new awesome program called the National Guard Patriot Academy.'"
The National Guard Patriot Academy is the military’s first and only high school that allows applicants between the age of 17 to 21 to enlist and earn an accredited high school diploma. It was a perfect fit for Roberts who wanted a second chance.
Roberts went back to the armory alone and visited with Staff Sgt. Lordy. They researched the Patriot Academy online and combed through postings on the program’s Facebook page.
“I could see she got really excited about the Patriot Academy,” said Staff Sgt. Lordy. Roberts was a cadet in the Army JROTC program at Lugoff-Elgin High School and told Lordy that she was proud of her accomplishments as a cadet. “I knew that good things would come for her, because she is young, very personable, and headstrong. [Our command] knew she had so much potential, she just needed some guidance from an outside source--the S.C. Army National Guard would be that source.”
She soon began her application to the program and was accepted in the fall of 2010. By December, Roberts was sworn into the South Carolina Army National Guard and left for basic training in March 2011.
On June 2, 2011, Roberts graduated from basic training at Ft. Jackson, S.C., and reported to the Patriot Academy to complete her diploma requirements. Life at the Patriot Academy was challenging. Many soldiers spend up to six months on the campus, conducting physical training, completing classes and homework along with military training and community service. Roberts was homesick and wasn’t expecting a National Guard program like the Patriot Academy to be as difficult as getting through Army basic training.
Her mother and stepfather came to visit on the 4th of July weekend but returned to South Carolina concerned about their daughter. Although it was a military academy, it still had some aspects of a regular high school. She received unwanted advances and felt intimidated by fellow students. And once again, Roberts fell into an old trap of listening to the wrong group of people.
Roberts failed to show up for formation and was reported AWOL (absent without leave). By the time she showed up in South Carolina, all efforts were focused to help her get back on track again. Staff Sgt. Lordy and her colleagues encouraged and prayed for Roberts to finish what she started.
“You can do this,” Staff Sgt. Lordy told Roberts. “It is a short time frame; it’s just a speed bump in life, and we have faith in you."
Maj. Timothy M. Cassel, Task Force Commander for the SCARNG Recruiting and Retention Battalion, formally counseled Roberts and asked her for a commitment to return to the Patriot Academy and graduate with her diploma. That night, her stepfather, Frank Staszak, drove through the day and into the night to get her back to the Academy.
Roberts kept her promise. On Friday, Nov. 4, 2011, she walked across the stage and received her diploma. Even though her family and friends couldn’t be in the audience, a sense of pride swelled deep in her heart.
“Besides the fact that I let my family down before in the past, they’re really proud of me that I’ve changed my life,” said Roberts. “I think I’m in a good place with them -- back in the circle of trust, even though I’ve been kicked out a couple of times [laughter]!”
She will report for advanced individual training as a Horizontal Construction Engineer (12N) in January at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and will return to her unit with the South Carolina Army National Guard in the spring of 2012.
“I was always downing myself about being successful and going to college and everything,” said Roberts on graduation day. “When I got to the Patriot Academy, I was a mess. Now I know that I can actually go to college. I guess I can really be something that I thought I couldn’t be.”