Veteran earns degree he put on hold 20 years ago to join the Army
A veteran with Central Texas ties who started college more than 20 years ago, but quit school to enlist in the Army and then lost both legs in an IED attack in Iraq has received the degree he started to work on two decades ago.
Army Sgt. Jay Fondren attended and played soccer at Dallas Baptist University in 1998, but quit three semesters into his education to enlist in the military in 2000.
Twenty years later, in December, after taking classes online with the dream of finishing what he started as an 18-year old, he crossed the stage to receive a degree in Christian ministry from the university.
"It's a huge weight lifted off my shoulders," Fondren said.
"I was the only one in my generation in my family who didn't have a degree. I honestly thought this was going to be a goal that was going to be a little too far."
Crossing the stage in Dallas was a long road for the Corsicana High School graduate.
In 2004, while serving with Fort Hood’s 1st Cavalry Division, Fondren and his fellow soldiers were the target of an IED attack the day before Thanksgiving while on routine patrol in Baghdad.
He was the most badly injured.
"They pulled me out of the truck and I remember looking up and seeing the cargo pockets on my BDU pants and there wasn't anything below that."
Fondren says his fellow soldiers immediately started working to save his life and while they did the soldier, who gave his life to Christ as an 11-year-old boy in Corsicana, began to pray.
"The guys were taking their belts off to put tourniquets on, and I was like 'OK Lord you promised to get me home, so let's get on with it.'"
Fondren remembers praying once again when he arrived at the first stop for help and realized how close he was to death.
"When we were in the brigade aid station, the chaplain came in and he was asking me questions," Fonderon said.
"I figured out real quick he was trying to find out if I was Catholic who was going to give me last rights. I said 'Sir I'm not going to die over here, but we can pray.'"
Three weeks later, Fondren woke up in the United States at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
The injuries he had suffered were extensive.
Both his legs were amputated, his arm was badly hurt and he lost a thumb on his right hand.
But he said the hospital staff was amazed at his recovery.
"When I woke up, the nurses would come into the room and ask if I was Christian and they'd say 'you're healing a lot faster than everyone else' and we would tell them it was because of the power of prayer."
And it's been that same faith that Fondren has relied as a married father of six, holding down a job as the Texas Outreach manager for the PTSD foundation of America and heading back to the classroom, online in 2007.
"You do a little bit at a time. It's how we eat the elephant, a bite at a time. You work really hard and you do what you can. "
The graduation was extra special for the veteran who received a standing ovation as the crowd was told his story just before his name was announced.
"I would like to take a moment during commencement to do a special recognition," said DBU President Dr. Adam Wright.
"It's a little bit out of character for us to do this but I think today's graduate that I want to honor deserves this recognition."
Fondren says after earning his bachelor's degree he has no plans to sit still.
He'll continue with his job working with veterans while pursuing a course of study for online training for emergency response chaplaincy at Billy Graham Association.