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BVA speaker urges grads to set goals high

| Saturday, July 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
U.S. Marines Capt. Eric McElvenny, a 2001 Belle Vernon Area High School graduate, coaches his 6-year-old daughter's soccer team near their San Diego home.
U.S. Marines Capt. Eric McElvenny, a 2001 Belle Vernon Area High School graduate, competed in three triathlons within one year of bring wounded in Afghanistan in December 2011.

When 2001 Belle Vernon Area grad Eric McElvenny concluded his commencement address congratulating and honoring the 200 members of the 2013 BVA graduating class, senior class adviser and Belle Vernon Area teacher Lou Rood went searching for the former Leopards football and baseball star and Naval Academy grad, who has competed in eight triathlon competitions since August 2012.

As most graduates and their families departed from James Weir Stadium on their way to graduation dinners and parties, Rood could only scratch his head regarding the whereabouts of McElvenny, who took time out from coaching his daughter's soccer team to return to his alma mater from his San Diego home for Belle Vernon Area's 47th commencement ceremony June 4.

“It took me about two hours to find him,” Rood laughed. “If there was one place I didn't look it was at the front end of a seemingly never-ending line. I thought it was just grads and their families congratulating each other and discussing future plans.”

Rood was wrong.

At the head of the line greeting well-wishers was McElvenny, who laughingly said this year's grads were in the first grade when he graduated.

“There were so many people who wanted to meet Eric and talk to him, about his speech, about him, and Eric waited until he spoke with everyone,” Rood added.

As an eighth-grader McElvenny had written a research paper about the United States Marine Corps. As his senior year progressed, McElvenny's grandfather, a decorated Korean War veteran, suggested that he apply for admission to the U.S. Naval Academy.

“I wanted to be a Marine since that research paper,” he said. “I chose the United States Marine Corps because I liked their reputation of being warriors, always ready for the call to protect our nation. After completing the report, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I knew that there will always be someone living in harsh conditions, sacrificing some of their comfort in order to provide our country security and to maintain the freedoms we enjoy. I needed to be part of that. For me, the Naval Academy was an option where I could continue playing sports, get a great education, and still become a Marine.”

After a brief stay at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., McElevnny was accepted into the Naval Academy, where he majored in mechanical engineering and was a member of academy's rugby team. Upon graduation, he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He spent a year of infantry officer training in Quantico, Va., before assignment at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Initially deployed to Southeast Asia in 2008 as part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, McElvenny served as a Mobile Assault Platoon Commander, conducting training operations with foreign military forces in Thailand and the Philippines. He followed by spending six months training entry-level Marines before volunteering for foreign deployment in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, as an Afghan National Army advisory team leader.

While conducting combat operations in Helmand Province, McElvenny was wounded in action by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), an injury that required amputation of his right leg below the knee.

But, McElvenny said, “I would not allow this injury to destroy my passion for life, my family (he is married to Lt. Rachel McElvenny, a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy, and the couple has a 6-year-old daughter, Lupe) and athletics.”

Within 60 days of the explosion, McElvenny was fitted with a prosthetic leg and, within one year, competed in three triathlons.

Triathlons, McElvenny explained, consist of swimming, biking, and running, adding that there are different types of grueling competitions with different distances.

“My goal is to inspire and motivate others, disabled or able-bodied, athletes or non, to get out there, be active, accomplish goals, overcome adversities, build confidence and enjoy life,” McElvenny said.

During his address, McElvenny thanked the Belle Vernon community for its constant support, noting he suffered the injury nearly half way around the world from his Belle Vernon roots.

“You have played a big role in my recovery, my positive attitude, my spirit and my steps forward. You make me proud to be a Belle Vernon Area graduate.”

In his address, McElvenny encouraged this year's graduates to take their great high school memories with them, but “I can tell you that as you move on you are going to experience challenges. Challenges are healthy, you will grow from them. They present themselves in different ways, physical, mental, emotional, or result from a relationship, during college finals, while on the job, or they could be spiritual. Everybody experiences challenges; everyone faces adversity and everyone encounters obstacles. What forms a person's character is not the challenge or adversity that a person faces, but what forms a person's character is how they step up to the plate and handle those challenges, how they face their adversity and how they overcome those obstacles.”

Les Harvath is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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