After receiving her diploma, Shoemaker High School salutatorian Estrella Juarez embraces her father, Maj. Mike Juarez, 3rd Army, U.S. Army Central Command as he surprises her by returning from deployment at the school’s commencement ceremony Saturday at the Bell County Expo Center.
By Andy Ross
Killeen Daily Herald

BELTON — When Shoemaker High School Salutatorian Estrella Juarez took to the stage for her speech during Saturday night’s commencement at the Bell County Expo Center, she described the experience of growing with a father in the military as both a “blessing and a burden.”

Acknowledging her many classmates who have shared similar experiences with a deployed parent, Juarez went on to say that even though her dad couldn’t be in attendance, she knows she has his support.

What Juarez did not know, however, was that her father was in fact waiting behind the stage.

Maj. Mike Juarez, an operations officer stationed with the 3rd Army, U.S. Army Central Command in Kuwait, managed to pull off the surprise visit home through the graces of his commanding officer and some last-minute maneuvering with his scheduled departure.

Later in the ceremony, as Estrella picked up her diploma, her father suddenly appeared and the two embraced.

“I’ve been deployed many times going back to Desert Storm and my kids have put up with a lot of shenanigans,” said Juarez, after he and his daughter walked to a quiet area to talk. “I got here so I can see her graduate, just like I saw her being born. In the Army, that’s rare.”

A grinning Estrella meanwhile was having trouble finding words, but managed to say she was happy.

As dramatic as it may have been, Juarez’ graduation experience was but one of many shared in the expo center Saturday night. With a total of 469 graduates, the SHS Class of 2011 wrapped up their high school experience and prepared to take the next step.

For graduates like 19-year-old Robert Baczik, that next step will be enrolling in a firefighting academy and then heading to San Antonio with the mission of starting a professional wrestling career.

“It’s kind of surreal to be here because this is what we worked 12 years for,” said Baczik, just before he took his seat for the ceremony. “It’s one of those things — to walk across the stage will be really out there.”

Another graduate, Mariah Bernardez, said she was ready to be done with high school and start college in the fall at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

“It was fun, but it’s time to move on,” Bernardez said.

While there were plenty words of optimism offered during the various speeches, valedictorian Aaron Beal said he wanted to share a more tempered message. Beal spoke of the many classmates who had started high school with him but not finished. He also said he hoped his classmates understood the reality of a changing job market and economy where simply earning a college degree is no longer enough.

But Beal said rather than be discouraged it should demonstrate that “what matters most is what we are capable of and how hard we are willing to work.”

“We need to be aware of our reality,” he continued. “Let it be in the back of our minds. Let it bother us if that is what it takes.”