SALT LAKE CITY — "Off and on" for three years, Aaron Christopher Hornok lived on the streets of Salt Lake City.
At times he lived out of his car. Other times he stayed with friends, at a shelter or he camped near streams so he could fish for food.
He watched fellow homeless veterans die on the streets "and I was the only one with them."
"The streets alone can kill you. It’s a never-ending pit," Hornok recently wrote in an essay.
Not only was he watching lives literally disappear before his eyes, the limited savings he had stashed away while serving in the Utah Air National Guard was dwindling.
His mother reached out to him and told him he could come home for a month until he could find a job. Once employed, he'd have another month to save for housing.
While job hunting through the Department of Workforce Services, the department "hooked me up with an education person."
A short time later, he was enrolled in Salt Lake Community College. Two and a half years later, he has earned an associate degree in applied sciences along with two skill certificates.
On Friday, Hornok will be one of seven SLCC graduates honored during commencement exercises at the Maverik Center as a "graduate of excellence."
"A lot of things have changed," Hornok, 39, said. "I'm looking forward to my future."
He will be among a graduating class of more than 3,600 students, nearly half of them first-generation students. The youngest graduate is 16 and the oldest 69. About 55 percent of the graduates are female.
Hornok is among 144 SLCC graduates who are veterans.
He joined the military after the 9/11 attacks on America and served more than six years in the Utah Air National Guard and two years in the inactive reserve.
"I love my country and I'll always stand up for it no matter what, whether I'm wearing a uniform or not. I love freedom," he said.
During his military service, Hornok got to know military aircraft inside and out. When he entered SLCC, he considered becoming an aircraft mechanic.
"I know the plane very well. I could take off if I wanted to," he said.
But as his studies progressed, he became increasingly interested in nondestructive testing, which uses multiple methods to detect defects in components of airplanes, machinery used in other industries or infrastructure such as bridges or pipelines.
For example, nondestructive testing has been employed to detect fatigue cracks on fans that push air into 737 engines after a fan blade broke on a Southwest Airlines aircraft engine last month.
A passenger later identified as an Albuquerque woman who was a bank executive and married mother of two suffered fatal injuries when she was partially sucked through a plane window that had been broken by pieces of the disintegrating engine, according to media reports.
This is the second time Hornok attended SLCC. After high school, he took classes there and then transferred to the University of Utah, where he eventually earned two bachelor's degrees. While at the U., Hornok made the dean's list and volunteered with then-Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert's poverty conference.
Over the years, he has also volunteered at libraries, the Boys & Girls Club, Sundance Film Festival and other community events and organizations.
But "life happened," and he struggled to put either degree to work during the economic downturn.
His time in the military was well spent, however, Hornok said. He worked in avionics and rose to the exacting standards that helped ensure the safety of fellow service members.
"I started at the bottom, but rose to the top," he wrote.
Although he served stateside, he knew airmen who died serving their country in the Middle East, which exacted an emotional toll.
"I had to fight as hard as I could to get back on my feet. Now I have accomplished this, beaten most of the odds of life, learned and lived more than most people ever will, and I’m winning," Hornok wrote in his essay.
Hornak will graduate with a high grade-point average and he hopes to put his degree to work immediately.
One of his long-range goals is to save enough money that he can purchase some land and raise horses.
In the meantime, he'll continue to serve the community and strive to be a good role model to his nephews, ages 2, 5, and 7.
"They are an absolute joy. I want to be a great example to them and show them if you really want things, go after those things and you can have those things," he said.
It's been a long journey out of homelessness to being honored at graduation but Hornok said even in the worst of times, he was buoyed by his faith.
"God never left me," he said.
Hornok is a preacher's kid, as was his father. His father is a minister, as are his uncles and his paternal grandfather, leaders in Bible churches.
"I come from a great family who raised me right. I’m thankful for them, their wisdom and love," he wrote.
But when Hornok was living on streets, which he attributes to bad luck and some bad choices, he said there were times his family struggled to understand how someone with a solid upbringing and two bachelor's degrees could end in such a place.Comment on this story
He admits it's difficult to understand and perhaps harder to explain. He says simply: "Life happened."
Hornok and his father had a heart-to-heart conversation during which his dad told him he did not fully understand until recently all that Hornok had been through.
He acknowledged, "You've had a lot of bad things come your way."
"My dad is a great man. He's a pastor of a church that's taught me so much. I said, 'Thank you for noticing what I'm doing.'
"They're very proud of me, very excited for me and hopeful for my future, as am I."