Mark Juarez, a 1997 graduate of Moffat County High School, rose from humble beginnings to dine with President Bush, aid in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and counsel policymakers such as Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell.
And, he said he couldn't have done it while using drugs or alcohol.
"I guarantee you if I ever got involved with drugs and alcohol, I never would have made it," Juarez told students Wednesday morning. "It's the easiest thing to fail with drugs and alcohol. It takes more of a man or woman to stand up and walk away from it. Drugs and alcohol are going to slow you down from achieving most of your goals."
Juarez, a former sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, addressed the high school student body as part of MCHS teacher Craig Conrad's Friday Story lecture series. Typically, speakers address Conrad's woodshop class, but the teacher and motivational guru said Juarez's story of overcoming adversity was relevant to all students.
"I promise you will remember (this story) for the rest of your lives," Conrad said. "This story is too big to be limited to just the woodshop."
Conrad said he helped Juarez deal with racism from other students and fight stereotypes while Juarez was a high school student. Juarez told Conrad he was routinely referred to in derogatory terms.
"Here's a kid who was being called that name -- and now, he's protecting your freedom," Conrad said.
Conrad implored students to use high school as a "stepping stone" for bigger and brighter things. But he advised students that as they step up, "make sure you're not stepping on other people."
Juarez, 27, is a veteran of operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. He was also deployed to Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to hunt bin Laden. It was an operation he told Bush the Marines would be ready for.
Standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center, Juarez met Bush and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who were visiting the site. He was later invited to dinner with the mayor and president, who asked Juarez how he would deal with al-Qaida.
"Mark said, 'Mr. President, if you say go, the Marines are ready,'" Conrad told students.
Juarez's lecture seemed to have the intended effect on students, who gave him a standing ovation. Many also asked Juarez for an autograph after the discussion.
"It was good and, I thought, very inspiring," said Ridge Shreve, a junior who's considering joining the armed forces and took particular interest in the lecture.
"It makes you think about a lot of different things," senior Justin Kawcak said. "I think now, people will think before they say some things."
Juarez left students Wednesday with advice for their futures.
"When they say the sky's the limit, it's the truth," he said. "Don't be afraid to become something great."