Graduation caps hard road for one determined cadet

Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory J. Mendenhall/ U.S. Coast Guard U.S. Coast Guard Academy First Class Cadet Joshua Surgeon, right, fights in the National Collegiate Boxing Association Championship finals April 6 at Foxwoods Resort and Casino. Surgeon beat his opponent and earned a national title.

New London - The first time Joshua Surgeon's Coast Guard career nearly ended was Aug. 1, 2009.

At home in Portland, Ore., after his freshman year at the Coast Guard Academy, Surgeon went with his family to Lake Billy Chinook, as he had many times in the past.

Surgeon and a relative were on two personal watercraft when he pulled ahead. The nose of the other watercraft crashed into his right leg, pinning it. He remembers looking down at his shattered tibia and thinking the Coast Guard would never let him become an officer, and his life would be sedentary.

The next eight years had been planned out - three until graduation, then five serving in the Coast Guard.

Surgeon was an athlete who wrestled for the academy, but doctors said he would walk with a limp and would never run again. They inserted a titanium rod and screws into his leg. After the operation, Surgeon's leg was battered, but straight.

"I knew I would be able to walk," he said recently. "If I could walk, I could slowly jog. If I could jog, I could skip or wobble to a mediocre run."

Surgeon fought an infection in his leg and returned to the academy against the advice of his parents, who wanted him to take a medical leave. It took nine months of often painful rehabilitation to break up scar tissue and prevent the tibia and fibula from fusing together.

Surgeon not only ran again, he ran a marathon. He returned to competitive sports and won the National Collegiate Boxing Association championships in the 165-pound weight class last month.

On Wednesday, the 23-year-old will graduate in the academy's Class of 2013 and become an ensign in the Coast Guard.

"I can tell you, without exception, Josh is the most determined guy I have ever coached in all my years at the academy," said Tom Barile, who has worked with three national champions in the 12 years he's been head coach of the boxing team. "When he sets his mind to something, it will be done."

But Surgeon would need to tap into that ability again when, in 2010, his future as an officer was in jeopardy for a second time.

• • •

Only three months after the accident, Surgeon, still walking with a cane, approached Barile and said, "I want to box."

Hundreds of cadets have told him that over the years, Barile said recently. Nine out of 10 changed their minds after the first workout or the first punch to the nose.

Surgeon had no boxing experience. His leg muscles had atrophied after months on crutches. At one point, his arm circumference was larger than that of his lower leg.

He wanted to compete again as a wrestler but worried his leg would twist in the wrong direction during a match. His high marks on the academy's physical fitness test in January 2010 gave him the confidence to box.

But Surgeon was awkward in the ring because his skills from wrestling didn't translate to boxing. He was told he had no footwork, he didn't move well. The workouts were so tiring that he couldn't lift his hands high enough to cover his face.

"You can never make excuses for yourself, because then your own standards will drop," Surgeon said.

He learned how to strategize in the ring. And he worked out, a lot. At 5 feet, 7 inches, Surgeon is always shorter than his opponents in his weight class, but he's more muscular.

Finally, he was ready to compete in his first bout. Then, in November 2010, Surgeon was dismissed from the academy.

• • •

Surgeon was accused of attempted theft after he found an iPod in the barracks over the summer and didn't turn it in.

He said he knew who owned it and planned to return it when that cadet got back from a summer assignment. But he admitted to using the iPod as a timer.

Surgeon went home briefly, then returned to Connecticut to try to earn a second chance, even though the academy rarely re-admits a student who violates the school's honor code.

He lived on his own and juggled a full schedule at Eastern Connecticut State University, a full-time job as a personal trainer and gymnastics coach, and volunteer work.

He reflected on the meaning of honor through a lengthy self-assessment program at the academy for cadets who commit honor offenses, and he sparred with the boxing team to help prepare the newer boxers for their bouts.

In short, Surgeon "found every opportunity to shine," Lt j.g. Gabriel Nelson said.

"It was remarkable to watch. It took an insane amount of energy and dedication to do that, and that's one reason I really admire the guy so much," said Nelson, an upper-class cadet at the time who was a friend and mentor to Surgeon.

Surgeon re-applied and was allowed to return to the academy in August 2011.

"Knowing how great of a service this is always let me have enough courage to try, to try again, to not stay down," Surgeon said. "With the leg injury, that was disappointing and devastating because that was completely out of my control, really. It was more or less how my body was going to react to the physical therapy. But the honor incident, that was totally in my control. … Knowing that, I took a chance to try to come back."

Surgeon got his "never-quit attitude" from his father. Rick Surgeon also was in a serious accident as a young man when, at the age of 19, he swerved his car to avoid a truck and crashed into oncoming traffic. He fell so far behind in college that he withdrew.

Soon after, he applied for a job at the Union Pacific Railroad in Portland. His neighbor recently had been hired, but he was told there were no openings.

He visited the office each week for about two months until he was offered a job. That experience taught him never to take no for an answer, and he often tells his four children they shouldn't, either. Of all his children, he said, Joshua is the one who has taken that lesson to heart.

"When I stop to think about it," Rick Surgeon said, "tears come to my eyes because I'm so happy and so proud of him."

• • •

Each time Josh Surgeon went for a run or hit a bag to train for this year's National Collegiate Boxing Association Championships, he thought about how he felt losing the title in the 2012 competition in a controversial, split 3-2 decision.

Nelson, who boxed at the academy, said coming so close can be crushing.

"It makes me think about his character, his story," he said. "It's this constant story of getting knocked down and coming back up a lot stronger the second time."

Before this season started, a runner who had signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., but couldn't go gave Surgeon his bib number. Surgeon ran his first marathon in under 3½ hours.

Back at the academy, Surgeon boxed instead of going out on Friday nights. He has a week of leave but he spent it training.

Surgeon won the Western New England Golden Gloves Championship in his weight class in January. At the 2013 NCBA Championship Finals at Foxwoods Resort Casino the first weekend of April, Surgeon was not the most skilled boxer in the tournament, but he was the most determined, according to Barile, his coach.

In the finals, Surgeon won a unanimous decision against an Air Force cadet, giving the academy its first championship belt since 2009. He was named an All-American for the second time and finished his amateur boxing career with 20 wins and three losses.

Surgeon said the watercraft accident nearly four years ago was "a blessing in disguise" because he likely never would have boxed if he could have kept on wrestling, and he never would have learned so much about himself.

"I was injured and what I thought my identity was, was now terminated. I was not going to be a wrestler and potentially, I was not going to be a military member in the Coast Guard," he said. "Labeling yourself as one thing is a really bad way to look at life. You have a lot more self-worth and meaning with what you do, and not necessarily what you call yourself."

The Coast Guard does not have a boxing team Surgeon can join once he graduates, but the Navy's team is open to Coast Guard boxers and coincidentally, it's in San Diego, where Surgeon will be stationed on the Cutter Sherman.

Surgeon is excited for his new life as a Coast Guard officer and as a potential member of the All-Navy Boxing Team. But he probably won't label himself that way.

Surgeon now thinks of himself in terms of his best features - his sense of humor, his easygoing nature, his compassion for others, and most of all, his perseverance.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

Surgeon, right, leaves Chase Hall at the Coast Guard Academy in New London Friday, to attend his final regimental change of watch ceremony. Surgeon graduates from the academy Wednesday.
Buy Photo Sean D. Elliot/The Day Surgeon, right, leaves Chase Hall at the Coast Guard Academy in New London Friday, to attend his final regimental change of watch ceremony. Surgeon graduates from the academy Wednesday.
U.S. Coast Guard Academy Cadet Joshua Surgeon works out Thursday in the cadet boxing club gym at the academy in New London. Surgeon came back from a crippling  accident and a dismissal from the academy for an honor code violation to win a national boxing title in April and to graduate from the academy Wednesday.
Buy Photo Sean D. Elliot The Day U.S. Coast Guard Academy Cadet Joshua Surgeon works out Thursday in the cadet boxing club gym at the academy in New London. Surgeon came back from a crippling accident and a dismissal from the academy for an honor code violation to win a national boxing title in April and to graduate from the academy Wednesday.
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