After a lifetime of neglect, Air Force Academy graduate finds his wings

Joshua Waugh's graduation from the Air Force Academy this week was a triumph of grit and determination, say academy officials. Despite hardships, he has come through life with a remarkable lack of bitterness, his mentor says.

Courtesy of the Air Force Academy
2nd Lt. Joshua Waugh graduated June 2 from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Despite growing up in the care of two neglectful foster care families, he lives life free of bitterness, his mentor says.

The first time Joshua Waugh applied to the Air Force Academy, he had to make up a Social Security number. To the best of his knowledge, he didn’t have one. 

He grew up in the foster care system, just down the road from the storied university. As he filled out college applications, he was a 6’1” teen with bleach blond hair who weighed 140 pounds. In the summers, h​e ate one meal every other day.

Born to two “very drug-addicted parents,” he says, w​hen he was in elementary school he and his diapered baby brother were locked outside in the snow by foster parents who decided they didn’t want the boys anymore. In his pre-teen years, he learned to live on the Ramen noodles and potatoes he bought working construction sites for a few bucks a day. He quietly survived sexual assault at the hands of another foster family member.

His admittance to the Air Force Academy was a triumph of grit and determination, say academy officials. After four years, Waugh graduated this week as an “inspiration” to fellow cadets, they add. 

“My biggest goal was that I wanted to make a difference for someone – just one person – the way that I wish someone had made a difference for me,” 2nd Lieutenant Waugh says.

And he did. In his time on campus, Waugh became a peer counselor, one of two cadets in each squadron trained to help fellow students in need. He was asked to share his story with his fellow cadets and alumni at the academy’s annual character and leadership symposium earlier this year. He drew a standing ovation from the packed auditorium.

Despite his hardships, Waugh has come through his life with gratitude and a remarkable lack of bitterness, his mentor Douglas Somerville says. “That’s his hallmark in fact: He does not look back. Even when we wave goodbye to him at the airport, he doesn’t look back. He doesn’t dwell on the past.” 

If he wasn’t in the Air Force Academy, Waugh says, there’s a good statistical chance he would have ended up in jail. 

After his younger brother tested positive for cocaine at the hospital, shortly after he was born in January 1995, the boys were taken from their parents and given to their grandparents. Josh was two years old.

They didn’t know it at the time, but his grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer. Six months after the boys were put in her care, she died. 

Then their grandfather also was diagnosed with the disease. Unable to care for them himself, he put the boys in the foster care system.

Before his grandmother’s death, the grandparents reached out to Douglas and Cynthia Somerville, family friends who were living in Oklahoma.

Douglas, known as Dusty, was a 1981 Air Force Academy graduate. He and his wife lived in Oklahoma, and the boys visited them a number of times. They wanted to adopt the boys, they say, but Dusty Somerville was about to deploy to Saudi Arabia for three months.

“As much as we wanted the boys, we knew that wouldn’t work out,” Mr. Somerville said in a phone interview. It would have been difficult for Cindy to care for two highly energetic boys all by herself, they say. “We wanted to wait until after I got back.” 

'Things got a little more drastic'

In the meantime, a couple fostered the boys. “I don’t remember too much about them,” Waugh says, but he recalls them being “really nice” – at first.

Two months after the boys arrived, the foster mother became pregnant.

“The reason they wanted to adopt was because they couldn’t have kids of their own,” Waugh says. At that point, he adds, “They had two kids that were not theirs, and that they didn’t want.”

The couple started leaving the boys places. “They’d take us to church, and they’d leave us there – someone would have to take us home.” They took Waugh to school, but then they didn’t pick him up.

The school office called the couple, who told the school to allow Waugh, who was under 7, to walk home. “I had never walked home before in my life,” he recalls. “I had no idea where I was, and I wandered the streets for most of the night… They did that every single day after that.”

In winter, “things got a little more drastic,” he recalls.

“They’d do things like put Jake and I in diapers and lock us outside in the snow.” 

Somerville says he recalls hearing reports that a neighbor had seen the boys being hit by the foster parents. 

A case worker came to check on the boys and put them back in the foster system.

'They just left ... for months at a time'

They were placed with another family, who had eight kids of their own and anywhere up to eight kids in the foster care system at any given time. 

Six months into the boys’ stay with their new adoptive family, the Somervilles tried to adopt the boys. A judge ruled that since they had found a new foster family, it would be unwise to disrupt the boys’ lives again. 

The foster family adopted the boys as wardens of the state, meaning they received money for caring for the kids. Waugh estimates they received thousands of dollars a month for all their foster children.

He says one of his foster sisters sexually abused him when he was eight years old, bringing him down into the basement of the house almost weekly for a year-and-a-half.

“Here I am in this frickin’ basement, and I’m terrified,” he says. “She’d just tell me to go downstairs, and I just knew it was going to be a bad day.” It ended when the foster sister went back to live with her biological father who, Waugh says, was abusing her. 

Waugh’s foster parents bought a 40-foot camper “and they just left for three or four months at a time.” As the youngest foster children, it was often just Waugh and his brother in the house alone, he says.

The only notice the boys received of their adoptive parents’ imminent departure was that they would stock the freezer with frozen pizzas. “You know those little Tostino’s pizzas – you bake them for 12 minutes? Yeah, I can do 100 things with those pizzas,” Waugh says. 

The situation was heartbreaking for the Somervilles, they say. “We were incredibly frustrated and wanted so badly just to be able to pull them out of that situation. Unfortunately, we had no legal right to do that,” Somerville.

Their lawyer explained the state didn’t tend to take child neglect cases seriously unless physical abuse was involved. “We were basically told that as long as they furnished one meal a day, they were OK,” says Cindy Somerville, adding that that meal could be a subsidized school meal program. “It was devastating.” 

'I'd work every odd job I could'

This meant Waugh was on his own to raise his little brother. “During the school year, I’d work every odd job that I could.” He taught himself skills that would help him earn money to buy Ramen noodles and potatoes.

As a middle-schooler, Waugh would wait with other men to get picked up to work at construction sites on weekends and during school breaks. “They’d put me in an attic and I’d run wire for 13, 14 hours. They’d give me 10 bucks and drop me off at the end of the day,” he says. 

In the winter, he would put chains on mail trucks. “I did it all under the table.”

“I mean, that’s all I could do. When you’re in 7th, 8th grade, you can’t get a real job,” he says. His plan was “to pick something up and get as good as I could at it, and the move on to something else.” 

In the summers, he says his adoptive family dropped him off at a campground by Turquoise Lake in the heart of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, where he and his brother lived in a tent for three months, at an altitude of 11,000 feet. 

There, he and his brother cut and split firewood. “We’d find downed trees, pack them out, split them into firewood, and sell it.”

They would do odd jobs around the campground, fixing picnic tables and building fences. At the end of the summer, the adoptive family “would have someone pick us up and take us back to the house, and it would start all over again,” Waugh says.

“It made me significantly more athletic – at least that’s what I tell myself.” 

He recalled his turning point his junior year of high school. He was walking through a tough part of Colorado Springs, on the east side of Fort Carson, in a neighborhood of double-wide trailers.

“It’s dark, and this guy pops out from behind a fence and says, ‘Gimme your money.’ I didn’t even have a wallet. I had no ID, no money,” Waugh says. “The only thing I could give him was my shoes, and I’d been wearing those literally since the 7th grade – he did not want those.

“He realized that he was significantly better off than me.

"He said, 'Get out of here,' and I said, ‘You don’t have to tell me twice,’ ” he says.

Waugh started running. Then he heard a couple of gunshots behind him.

“It was that moment I thought, ‘I cannot live the rest of my life this way.’ ”

It helped that the Somervilles had come back into his life while he was in high school.

“They stepped in, and they really started talking to me about the Air Force Academy,” Waugh says. “Having grown up the way I had, I thought it would be great to be able to lead airmen someday who had similar experiences.” 

The Somervilles sent Josh and his brother to soccer camp, and sent Josh to a summer engineering program as well. “We thought: He needs to see what it’s like to be there, to live there – every visit just further solidified his desire to go to the academy,” says Dusty Somerville.

But his public school was not great. Even if it had been, getting into the Academy from Colorado Springs is “almost impossible,” Somerville says. An academy graduate who had interviewed Waugh, and who became an advocate for him before and during his time at the academy, recommended that Josh apply from a different district. 

The Somervilles attended Josh’s high school graduation. (His foster parents did not.) Josh did not make the cut for the Air Force Academy, nor was he chosen​ to attend an Air Force preparatory school.

The Somervilles stepped in again. “When he graduated, he became our son at that moment,” Dusty says. ​

They paid to send Josh to a special preparatory school in San Bernardino, Calif., created to help give recent high school graduates a better shot at being admitted to the military service academies. 

During his semester there, Waugh “really got his academics up,” Somerville says. He also earned a 780 on his math SATs. “That was his turning point,” he adds. “That’s when they [the academy] really started to take notice of him.” 

Before he left for prep school, the Somervilles brought him back to their home in Oklahoma, where they established his residency, registering him for the draft and to vote. After prep school was over, Waugh returned to Oklahoma, where he attended a local university and reapplied to the academy.

He was accepted. 

'Don't let anyone tell you you aren't good enough'

During his time in Colorado Springs, Waugh has taken advantage of his time there in a way that cadets who have known deprivation – and the value of opportunity—tend to do, taking courses in archery, rock climbing, free fall, and all of the flying programs. He also became a leader in the peer-counseling program.

This week, the Somervilles traveled to Colorado Springs for the graduation ceremonies on campus, attending the graduation parade and the commissioning ceremony, where Dusty Somerville swore Waugh in as a new second lieutenant. 

“I’m just trying to keep my emotions in check,” Somerville says. He and his wife attended the graduation ball, where Cindy wore the same dress she wore 35 years ago.

They lunched at the Broadmoor, where Cindy’s mother worked for 40 years. It is also the spot where Waugh met his fiancée, and where he proposed to her on parents weekend, which the Somervilles traveled from Oklahoma to attend. 

Waugh’s fiancée is attending nursing school, and his future in-laws “have made a place for him in their home,” Somerville says. “It’s the kind of role-model family he never got a chance to experience growing up.” 

Waugh says his philosophy is simple. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t good enough to do something,” he says. “Just do it. Put in the work. If you want something bad enough, that work is just a bridge – and you can cross it.” 

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