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Like his 1,020 classmates, Ryan Sajdera joined a special club when he became a college graduate Saturday as a result of commencement ceremonies at UW-Stout's Johnson Fieldhouse.
In Sajdera's case, however, there is unfinished business.
He has one more special rite of passage, and the second one will mean just as much — if not more — than the first.
On Saturday, May 17, Sajdera will relinquish the rank of cadet in the Army ROTC program and attain the rank of officer in the U.S. Army during a commissioning ceremony at UW-Stout. ROTC stands for Reserve Officer Training Corps.
If it wasn't for ROTC, Sajdera might not be a college graduate today.
During the fall of his freshman year, in 2010, Sajdera was on the verge of dropping out. "I was sick of doing homework and writing papers," said Sajdera, who said he enrolled at UW-Stout largely because he had been recruited to play baseball.
Then Sajdera's father suggested that Ryan consider the ROTC program on campus. Although he previously had no intention of serving in the military, Sajdera thought the program would be worth a try.
After sticking out the fall semester, he started ROTC in January 2011 and his world changed. He started enjoying the military science courses, which he took while still pursuing his degree in health, wellness and fitness.
He liked the camaraderie, the camouflage, the labs, the 6:30 a.m. physical training, the technology — everything about it. "Everything fell into place for me," he said.
After joining the Northwoods Battalion ROTC program, Sajdera went from being a question mark as a college student to being an exclamation point.
On the academic side, Sajdera's grades shot up. He earned seven straight Chancellor's Awards while compiling a 3.79 grade-point-average. His GPA in military science courses was 4.0. He graduated magna cum laude.
On the military side, he has achieved even more. He is the No. 1-ranked cadet in his ROTC program, which includes UW-Eau Claire, UW-River Falls and UW-Stevens Point. For that distinction, he earned the George C. Marshall Award, named after the World War II general and former secretary of state and defense.
Sajdera also earned the Distinguished Military Graduate Award by ranking in the top 20 percent of more than 5,600 ROTC cadets across the nation. Sajdera is in the top 10 percent.
In summer 2013 Sajdera received another honor when he was named No. 1 in his platoon during the Army Leadership Development and Assessment Course at Fort Lewis, Wash.
The Marshall award qualified Sajdera to attend a special program in April with 274 other standout cadets at Virginia Military Institute. They met with the Army chief of staff and other high-ranking military leaders, learned about leadership and attended seminars.
"I learned a lot about the professional conduct of becoming an officer," Sajdera said.
He also went to Kosovo for a month in 2013 after the Fort Lewis assessment camp. In Kosovo, Sajdera and others taught English to security forces.
"I didn't realize a farm boy from Winter, Wisconsin, would be doing this as a senior in college," said Sajdera.
Sajdera, who left the UW-Stout baseball team after his sophomore year, is from north central Wisconsin. His parents own a 160-acre farm. He graduated from Winter High School in 2010.
This summer, Sajdera and his wife, Sarah, will head to Fort Rucker, Ala., where Ryan will begin training to become a helicopter pilot, one of the most sought-after positions in the Army.
He's not sure if he will pursue a long-term career in the military or work in the health, wellness and fitness field. A certified trainer who works part time at BodyWorks in Menomonie, he already has used his physical training and knowledge to his advantage in the military, he said.
"Ryan will make an outstanding young officer in our Army," said Lt. Col. K. Dave Pindell, a professor of military science and chair of the military science department at UW-Stout. "He is never satisfied with just meeting a standard. He always wants to exceed it. He constantly pushes himself, his peers and underclassmen to get better.
"I have no doubt that he will succeed no matter what he decides to do after his initial commitment to our Army. I would serve in a foxhole with Ryan anywhere," Pindell said.
Sajdera believes that his success is a direct result of the ROTC program and the leaders and students in it. "Our class is phenomenal. Guys really push each other. Like the Bible says, it's iron shaping iron," he said.
Top and middle: Ryan Sajdera, the top graduate this year from the Northwoods Battalion, will train to fly helicopters in the Army.
Bottom: Sajdera attended a special program at Virginia Military Institute after receiving the George C. Marshall Award.