Earning their honor stoles

By

Jerry Gonzalez

Overcoming great challenges to achieve success stands as the underlying theme for some of the more than 700 student veterans graduating this spring semester from Arizona State University.

ASU’s veterans were honored Saturday at ASU Gammage during the Veterans Honor Stole Ceremony — a signature event sponsored by the Pat Tillman Veterans Center, the ASU Alumni Association and the ASU Alumni Veterans Chapter.

As the guest speaker, Marine veteran and Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication graduating student Christopher Cadeau was one of the ceremony highlights, as he shared his path from battling drug and alcohol addiction to success.

“I graduated high school with a 1.9 GPA,” Cadeau said. “[Now] I graduate with honors, and currently my family and I are packing for a trip to Chicago to start graduate school at Northwestern University.” 

Cadeau, a sports journalism major, created and hosted the Veteran Diaries radio show on ASU’s AM radio station The Blaze. He was also instrumental in establishing the Pat Tillman Veterans Center veteran outreach team, a cadre of students and staff dedicated to creating initiatives to help veterans transition to and succeed in academic life. Cadeau, who served in the Marine Corps for nearly 8 years, was also selected to write for the Arizona Republic’s biweekly “Veterans Voice” column.   

Another Marine veteran at the ceremony who blended in inconspicuously — although he is part of Marine Corps history for earning the U.S. Navy’s second-highest award for combat valor — was R.J. Mitchell.  

A mechanical engineering major with the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Mitchell earned the Navy Cross for his actions in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. He was a squad leader credited with risking his life to rescue five wounded teammates by leading an attack against a group of insurgents in a fortified house during a vicious firefight. The Navy Cross is second in precedence only to the Medal of Honor.  

Mitchell has been employed full time by Arizona Public Service and will accept a new position with the company as a gas turbine engineer. The Midwesterner, who grew up in Nebraska and Iowa, is grateful to reach the end of his ASU journey, which started in 2011.

“It’s been a long hobby,” said Mitchell, about balancing a full-time job and school. “I plan on enjoying stuff that I haven’t been able to enjoy in years.”

Mitchell expressed his gratefulness for the Pat Tillman Veterans Center for the support its staff provided him over the years. 

“The Tillman Center has always been a place to find some grounding, not feel out of place or alone,” Mitchell said. “It’s been a journey for sure.” 

For high-achieving married couple Nikki and John Fowler, the journey to graduation also started in 2011 when they first met at military intelligence school in San Angelo, Texas, shortly after joining the Army.

Although they knew each other in Texas, the Fowlers didn’t start dating until, by chance, they ended up in the same unit at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, their first duty station after training. But after serving nearly four years and facing multiple separations, an Afghanistan deployment for John and the other unique stressors of military life, they decided to leave the Army after fulfilling their contracts.

“Marriages in the military are really tough,” said John, who will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in international letters and cultures (classics). “We decided early on, even before we were engaged, that we did not want to get married while being in the military.”

The Fowlers returned to John’s home state of Arizona in 2015 and transitioned to academic life at ASU. They married in 2016.

“I always knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t realize what I would gain from college in general,” said Nikki, an Oregon native majoring in interdisciplinary studies with concentrations in educational studies and dance, and a certificate in entrepreneurship and innovation. “Just being a more educated person overall, regardless of what degree path I took, has really helped me grow into the person I am today.”

Nikki, who has been working as a dance instructor, and John, a political advocate intern, rose to the challenge of balancing marriage while working part time and attending school full time.  The Fowlers both completed their four-year degrees in three years while maintaining a 4.0 GPA.  

“I’m the first one of my close family to have graduated from college,” Nikki said. “I’m really excited about it.”

Nikki and John are going into education, and both will be working at Great Hearts Academies. John will teach Latin, and Nikki will start there as a teacher’s apprentice. 

“The best part of my education at ASU was that it started me on a path of lifelong learning that I began while in the Army,” John said. “What it has really done is provide structure, great instruction as well, and also opportunity … and also the confidence to tackle just about anything that I want to put myself into.”

The Fowlers will graduate with the highest academic distinction, summa cum laude, during ASU’s Undergraduate Commencement at Chase Field in Phoenix on Monday.

Top image: Marine veteran R.J. Mitchell is congratulated by fellow Marine veteran Joanna Sweatt, ASU Alumni Veterans Chapter, during the Veterans Honor Stole Ceremony on Saturday morning in Tempe. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now