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Road to Student of the Year honor was a rough one

February 18, 2013
photo - UCCS student Wayne Caudill poses Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 at the home office where he studies.  Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE
UCCS student Wayne Caudill poses Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 at the home office where he studies. Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE 

Wayne Caudill has been named the state’s Student Leader of the Year.

You might picture the college junior as a youth, maybe a a little wet behind the ears but doing well in academics.

Not exactly.

Caudill is 29. He was a troublemaker who didn’t graduate high school, later served as a combat medic in Iraq and came home to cope with PTSD, booze and pain killers.

The prestigious Colorado Leadership Alliance award is given by the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation. The alliance is one of its community programs.

Katie Kramer, is vice president of the Denver-based Boettcher Foundation, which provides funding for the Alliance. She also chaired the selection committee, and had this to say about Caudill:

“He is a nontraditional student and has had unique experiences before college that have allowed him to touch people. He has the heart for making life better for others.”

She said he was chosen for the award because of his ability to stay positive and never quit despite a lot of adversity in his life.

“He  has shown grit in putting his own life together and helping teens do the same,” she noted.

But Caudill is modest. “I didn’t think I have done anything extraordinary. I just like to help kids.”

These days you can find him studying at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, helping his 9-year-old son with homework, playing tea party with his 4-year-old daughter or volunteering as a Colorado Springs Teen Court case manager and moderator. The program provides an alternative to sentencing for kids 10 to 18 who commit misdemeanors. Teen volunteers review the cases and deliver restorative justice sentences of community service and making amends.

“I make sure  the kids are making mature decisions,” Caudill says.

He knows such second chances and support systems are all important.

You can see it reflected in the mementoes  by his desk tucked in a corner of his family room.

There’s the  “I love you”  balloons from his wife, Alice, and a sign that says “Make Each Day Count.” On the wall are college diplomas belonging to his parents, who both served in the Army.

“They are my inspiration,” he says. “They didn’t come from  a whole lot and did great. My dad got his college degree at  45, and my mom was almost 50. And they stood by me. So did my wife. She’s been through a lot.”  

It may all sound hunky dory now, but it isn’t.

“It’s been a struggle,” he says.

He served in the U.S. Army from 2003 to 2007. While in Iraq, he sustained combat injuries including traumatic brain injury,  and suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He has nightmares and migraines. He wears hearing aids. When he got back to the states, he drank too much, took too many painkillers and lost a job because of it. He received rehab and counseling through the Colorado Drug Court program.

Afterwards, he enrolled in Pikes Peak Community College. Now at UCCS, he is working on a bachelor of innovation degree. It’s a unique program that focuses on business entrepreneurship, creativity and business teamwork.

At UCCS, he was one of 40 students chosen for the Chancellor’s Leadership Class program, which provides scholarships, leadership theory, mentoring and community service projects. He is also an El Pomar scholar.

Caudill still receives PTSD therapy.  “Running the Incline helps, too,” he says.

He studies five or more  hours a day. It isn’t the easiest thing. But he does have an A minus in business calculus.

“It’s hard to concentrate. But I just keep picturing my kids and wife seeing me walk across the stage at graduation,” he says. “I want the kids to aspire to that too.”

A friend introduced him to community service with Colorado Springs Teen Court in 20011. It was a perfect fit. He understands where the kids are coming from. When he was a teen, he was often in trouble, skipped school and didn’t graduate. He eventually got his GED in the Army.  

He likes working for nonprofits that help others. In a way it is like being a medic, he explains. 

“I’d treat their wounds, but I felt my being there also in some way nourished their soul, provided that  human connection that it would be OK.”

He will graduate in 2014. After that, he says, “I’d like to work on putting veterans to work.”

That means  creating ways infantry expertise can translate into civilian jobs he explains.  

“If you have a job and are contributing, it does a lot to fight depression, alcoholism, suicide all that.”

For his senior project, he is organizing a Veteran’s Conference at UCCS. Speakers will include business leaders, soldiers and others who will discuss problems that veterans face when returning home and how employers can work with veterans as employees.

He will be honored by the Alliance at a Celebrating Civic Leadership luncheon April 11 in Denver.

He said in an El Pomar video that the award really belongs to others, his  mentors, fellow project volunteers, his family.  

“It’s everyone’s award and it’s a tremendous honor to be recognized for all their work and my work.”

Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371 Twitter @mcgrawatgazette
Facebook Carol McGraw

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