(ANNAPOLIS, Md.) — On Tuesday 1,099 students of the U.S. Naval Academy graduated, after being honored with a keynote speech by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. As at any commencement ceremony, each diploma was received with jubilation from the newly-commissioned Navy or Marine Corps officer and their family. But one midshipman drew more thunderous applause than any other: 22-year-old Kevin Hillery.
Hillery is the first student at the Naval Academy to graduate as a paraplegic. Paralyzed from the waist down, Hillery earned a degree in economics.
He lost the use of his legs in a freak accident during a trip to the Shenandoah Valley last April. He was mountain biking with friends when a storm came in, crushing him under a falling tree.
Hillery would later tell ABC’s Washington affiliate, WJLA, that the unprecedented nature of his accident left his family uncertain of his future. After grappling with the reality that he would not be able to fulfill his lifelong dream to be a Navy SEAL, his attention turned to convincing the academy to let him finish his degree.
He returned to the academy this spring.
“I think it reflects well on the Naval Academy and the Navy that they would stand by one of their own,” Kevin told WJLA.
Kevin, a Vermont native, won’t be continuing his career in the military, but said he is considering going to law school.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio