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From a war zone, airman graduates with Buffalo State's Class of 2017

Nine months ago, at the start of the most recent college year, a technical sergeant with the Air National Guard learned he was again being deployed to the Middle East. This time, it created an extra complication. He would miss his college graduation.

Adam Winters was juggling studies, a job and military service, and it was tough. It grew even worse when the mission of the 107th Air National Guard wing in Niagara Falls changed. His one-weekend-a-month training moved across upstate, to the 109th Air National Guard base in Schenectady.

Collecting his criminal justice degree, in cap and gown, was important to Winters. He explained his predicament to other students at Buffalo State and to the dean of students, Charles Kenyon.

This is the age of instant electronic communication, everyone reasoned. Surely something could be done to take some sting out of Winters' predicament.

At the college's highest levels, wheels turned.

Sgt. Adam Winters attends the SUNY Buffalo State graduation ceremony via Skype on Saturday, May 13, 2017. He is deployed in Southwest Asia with the Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

On Saturday, hundreds of fresh college graduates paraded to the stage for a handshake and an unforgettable moment of recognition. Proud friends and relatives hooted and cheered in the first of the college's two ceremonies for a total of 1,752 undergraduates that day.

When everyone was back in their seats, the college president, Katherine Conway-Turner, returned to the microphone and waited for quiet.

"We have one more graduate to recognize," she began.

[PHOTO GALLERY: Sgt. Adam Winters graduates via Skype]

The graduate couldn't be in Buffalo because he had been deployed to Southwest Asia, she explained. Then on an overhead screen, Winters appeared in desert fatigues. His red hair was obscured by a graduation mortarboard atop his head. Its tassel fell along his grinning face. From seven time zones away, Winters was attending via Skype.

Service members Skyping in to graduation ceremonies is not unheard of. But it has been more commonly used to let proud parents deployed overseas watch their children collect diplomas and degrees. Service members graduating via Skype is less typical. Certainly it was a first for Buffalo State, Conway-Turner said later.

Winters launched into his prepared remarks. He thanked the college for accommodating him, and his family for their support. And he especially thanked his fiancee, Katherine Peterson of Buffalo, for all the support she had given him when the chips were down, or when he was tired and frustrated.

He had helped her through law school, at the University at Buffalo, and now she has helped him through Buffalo State, he said. A whoop went up when he told the crowd they were to be married in June 2018.

"To the graduating class of 2017, congratulations," he said. "We did it." He went on to give them a pep talk about life, saying "everyone here should strive to dedicate themselves for a greater purpose."

Over to the side, with a set of Winters' dog tags dangling around her neck, Peterson took it all in. They had met through mutual friends in 2012. Three deployments later, they are still together.

Katie Peterson wears a set of her fiancee's dog tags to the SUNY Buffalo State graduation ceremony on Saturday, May 13, 2017. Sgt. Adam Winters was unable to attend his graduation because he is deployed with the Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing in Southwest Asia. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"I was anxious and excited," she said later. "I was anxious, hoping that all the technology would work. But I was also excited to see his face again because I haven't been able to talk to him these last few days."

What did she take away from his comments?

"That he loves me a lot. And that he credits me with a lot more than he probably should."

Reached by email, Winters was bubbling over with appreciation.

"The efforts of the college these past few weeks were incredible," he said. "Staff from many different departments came together to try and make me feel as close to home and part of the celebration as they possibly could."

In October, he will take the test to become a state trooper, but he's not leaving the Air National Guard. He would like to become a commissioned officer and work as an intelligence officer on the weekends he reports for duty.

Winters had previously been deployed to Kuwait and Afghanistan. He can't specify his current location – Southwest Asia is all he will say – but he said he's participating in Operation Inherent Resolve. A Defense Department website indicates the operation's intent is to defeat ISIS, and it appears most concentrated in Syria and Iraq.

Winters, who turned 27 on Friday, was given the day off Saturday, to enjoy his honor. But the means of celebration are limited.

"I plan on having a nice big slice of cake, and maybe even a little ice cream," he said by email.

"It is around 110 degrees daily here."

This is college-graduation season, so caps and gowns also were donned elsewhere on Saturday:

-- At Niagara University, graduates of the colleges of Education, Business Administration and Hospitality and Tourism Management received their degrees in a morning ceremony that conferred honorary doctorates on Bill Polian, the NFL Hall of Famer, and Michael Tobin, an international correspondent for Fox News. Biographer Ron Chernow, author of a biography about Alexander Hamilton, in the afternoon spoke to graduates of the College of Arts and Sciences and received an honorary doctorate. The Very Rev. Michael Carroll received the Caritas Medal.

-- SUNY Fredonia recognized recipients of bachelor's and master's degrees and the advanced certificate at morning and afternoon ceremonies in Steele Hall. The speaker was Donald J. Tramuto, chief executive at Tivity Health, a provider of fitness and health-improvement programs based in Tennessee.

-- Hilbert College's approximately 230 graduates heard remarks by Candace S. Johnson, president and chief executive of Roswell Park Cancer Institute, in the Wesleyan Church of Hamburg at McKinley Parkway. The college gave her an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

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