Combat veteran turned Paralympian to address SUU’s graduating Class of 2019

Background: 2015 file photo of Southern Utah University campus, St. George News / Cedar City News. Foreground: undated photo of Melissa Stockwell, who is scheduled to deliver keynote address to SUU graduates at commencement ceremony in Cedar City, Utah on May 3, 2019 | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University, St. George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY — Patriot and American war hero, three-time world champion paratriathlete and Paralympic medalist Melissa Stockwell will be the keynote speaker at Southern Utah University’s 120th annual commencement ceremony Friday.

“We’re honored at the opportunity to have a military veteran and paratriathlete share her story at this year’s graduation,” Mindy Benson, vice president of alumni and community relations, said in a news release. “Melissa’s compelling story about overcoming difficult circumstances and obstacles will help inspire our graduates to accomplish anything they set their minds to as they go out into the world.”

The ceremony will be held at 9 a.m. in the America First Event Center, where more than 2,000 students are set to graduate.

Stockwell has dedicated her life to overcoming personal tragedy by chasing greatness and giving back to others. In 2002, she graduated from the University of Colorado and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army. Her incredible journey of service and triumph over difficulty began in March 2004 when she was deployed to Baghdad, Iraq.

Three weeks after Stockwell’s deployment a blast from a roadside bomb struck her Humvee, resulting in an injury that caused her to lose her left leg above the knee. After numerous surgeries and infections, Stockwell was medically retired from the army. However, Stockwell refused to retire from accepting and conquering challenges.

Undated photo of Melissa Stockwell, who is scheduled to deliver keynote address to Southern Utah University graduates at commencement ceremony in Cedar City, Utah on May 3, 2019 | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University, St. George News / Cedar City News

Following her military career, Stockwell focused on becoming an athlete. In April of 2008, she became the first Iraq War veteran to qualify for the Paralympics where she competed in three swimming events and was chosen by her fellow Team USA members to carry the American flag during the closing ceremonies in Beijing.

She says she is proud to have served her country as a member of the U.S. Army and as part of Team USA. On September 11, 2016, Stockwell returned to compete in the Rio Paralympics as a para-triathlete in honor of her fellow soldiers and their families. After a grueling race, she ended the day on the podium as a Paralympic bronze medalist.

Stockwell has spent many years competing in the sport of paratriathlon and is now a three-time world champion. She was named USA Triathlon’s female Paratriathlete of the Year for two consecutive years and is a two-time nominee for an Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Award. She recently completed her first Ironman in 2013.

Giving back to those who face similar challenges has become part of Stockwell’s mission. In 2007 she completed the prosthetic practitioner program at Century College in Minnesota, where she learned to fit other amputees with artificial limbs. She also helps others with disabilities enjoy the triathlon sport as a level one certified coach and co-founder of the Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club.

Stockwell’s inspiring story has been featured in countless media outlets such as People, Sports Illustrated, The Chicago Tribune and Triathlon Magazine. She was also featured in the documentary “From Baghdad to Beijing” which chronicled Stockwell and three other wounded veterans’ journey from Baghdad to the Paralympics.

Stockwell is the mother of two children, Dallas Patrick and Millie Lynn.

Valedictory address

Also scheduled to speak during Friday’s commencement ceremony is mechanical engineering major Cameron Aston, the Class of 2019’s valedictorian with a 4.0 grade point average.

Aston said in a news release that the honor is “a dream come true” for him and “proof that you can do anything you set your mind to and an honor I will always treasure and be grateful for.”

Southern Utah University engineering student Cameron Aston, the Class of 2019’s valedictorian, is scheduled to speak at commencement ceremony in Cedar City, Utah on May 3, 2019 | Photo courtesy of SUU, St. George News / Cedar City News

Aston’s love for mechanics and engineering started at an early age. Growing up in Fredonia, Arizona surrounded by dirt bikes, ATVs, and other off-road vehicles, Aston loved learning about them so much that he would read the owner’s manuals in his free time. His passion for all things related to motors led him to begin his education at Southwest Technical College as an automotive technician. He graduated from Southwest Tech at the top of his class and moved on to welding courses.

Aston’s welding professor encouraged him to study engineering and enroll at Southern Utah University where he says he “never looked back.” He will graduate with a major in mechanical engineering and a CAD/CAM minor.

Dr. Ali Siahpush, associate professor of engineering, has known Aston for four years. He praised Aston for his strong work ethic, saying “He is never late, he is always there. He does a really good job doing his homework [and] his exams. I grade his exams first to make sure my solutions are correct.”

Siahpush described Aston as being a “typical mechanical engineer, he wants to be very precise.” Along with being an outstanding student, Siahpush said, “There are times he knows more than I do. He is the one that corrects me in class, and I love that! He has a good sense of humor and he communicates well.”

During his senior year, Aston focused his capstone project on building a solar-powered light system for the Cedar City “C” located at the top of Cedar Mountain on the northeast side of Cedar City.

Every year for Cedar High School’s homecoming, the students light the “C” with road flares, but Aston wanted to design something more permanent that could be used nearly every night. Paired with and supported by Cedar High School, Aston and his team created a design that includes color-changing LED lights so the “C” can be lit, potentially, any color of the rainbow.

Southern Utah University engineering student Cameron Aston, the Class of 2019’s valedictorian, is scheduled to speak at commencement ceremony in Cedar City, Utah on May 3, 2019 | Photo courtesy of SUU, St. George News / Cedar City News

“The idea was actually given to the department by Cedar High School,” Aston said. “We thought it would be an amazing legacy project. When it goes up, I will be proud to know I was part of such a large community icon.”

Aston and his team are getting close to completing the design and hope to have a system ready for Cedar High School by the end of the semester.

When discussing his honor to be this year’s valedictorian, he said, “It is truly beyond my wildest expectations for myself.”

As an engineering major, Aston has learned about a wide range of principles and has participated in project-based learning opportunities throughout his education.

“I love my major because of the sheer diversity of what we learn,” Aston said. “It keeps me interested and moving forward without getting bored. I can’t wait to get out into the workforce and put my new knowledge to use to make a positive impact as an engineer.”

Following his graduation from SUU, Aston plans on working in the field as a design engineer and is currently considering a position in Southern Utah. While he eventually plans on pursuing graduate school after a few years working in the field, he is ready for a small break from studying.

“If I have learned anything from SUU, it’s that I love to learn. I plan to continue learning everything I can about engineering and other aspects of science.”

Event details

  • What: Southern Utah University’s 120th annual commencement ceremony.
  • When: Friday, May 3, at 9 a.m.
  • Where: America First Event Center on the SUU campus.
  • Additional information: Visit the university’s website.

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