Retired Staff Sgt. Jason Ellis (Courtesy Jason Ellis)
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It may have taken Staff Sgt. Jason Ellis about nine years to receive his degree from the Community College of the Air Force, but he had good reason. Ten years ago, combat injuries severely wounded Ellis while he was on deployment in Iraq. Since then, he has had 16 knee surgeries and a major back surgery. He retired in 2010.
But he didn’t let that keep him from his goal of getting a degree. On May 23, he’ll become the first “wounded warrior” to graduate from CCAF at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.
“I’m excited about receiving it, because this is something I was working toward. As far as being first wounded warrior ... the goal for me was always to achieve the degree,” Ellis said.
It was an opportunity afforded to him by the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act that decreed “combat wounded, ill and injured airmen” who didn’t complete their CCAF degree program could do so after separation or retirement. The Wounded Warrior Program of the CCAF told Ellis earlier this year he would be the first wounded warrior to graduate.
With his matriculation from CCAF, he adds an associate degree in emergency management and information systems technology on top of similar degrees in arts and science and crime scene technology from St. Petersburg College, and a bachelor’s degree in criminology from the University of South Florida.
“One day, I intend to pursue a master’s in the same field,” Ellis said.
Although clearly no stranger to the merits of higher education, Ellis, 38, said it had been a challenge to finish his CCAF program because of his deployment schedule throughout his career. And then came the surgeries and recovery.
But he had motivation.
“I want my kids to always excel,” he said. “This is more for my kids so they know that there are standards.”
Ellis and his wife and their five children live near Tampa, Fla., and his wife is expecting a sixth child.
Because of all the medical issues, he is not currently working, which gives him the opportunity to spend time with his children.
Ellis is also a head coach for the East Tampa Thunder high school girls travel basketball team. He said basketball was just in his nature, once playing for Oklahoma State University for one season, the Continental Basketball Association for nearly one season after he joined the Air Force, and he was on the practice squad for the Oklahoma City Calvary.
Now, he plays wheelchair basketball for the Tampa Bay Strong Dogs. He recently participated in the 2013 Warrior Games on the Air Force wheelchair basketball team and pistol shooting team as well.
“I just have to do something. If I don’t, I’ll fall into a rut, kind of like when I got my injury,” he said. “I try to show I can do something no matter what I’m going through ... I still have that inner drive and that passion to compete.”
What’s next on his agenda?
Depending on his upcoming surgery, he said he may participate in a chance to compete in the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Games.