Eight veterans of foreign wars received graduation certificates Tuesday, one of them posthumously, under a program that awards diplomas to former airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines who gave up school to serve their country.
Jerry Arnold of Hemet, Raymond Casares of Hemet, Jack Griner of Thousand Palms, “Ron” Robert Jackson of Hemet, Steve Stone of Homeland, Kenneth Weiner of Murrieta, and Charles Whatley of Riverside were furnished diplomas during the 12th annual “Operation Recognition” ceremony at the Moreno Valley Conference and Recreation Center.
Pat Baca’s certificate was granted posthumously, received by members of the late Moreno Valley man’s family, according to the Riverside County Office of Education.
About 100 people were in attendance, and Griner read a poem he composed for the occasion, titled “Our Day.”
“Years have gone by, and just like you, I’m sure we have gone through a lot of hard-learned doors,” the poem reads. “But there was one darn thing always on our mind: We didn’t get that high school diploma until now. Didn’t have time.”
Griner at 93 was the oldest among the graduates and served in the U.S. Navy for the duration of World War II. Baca served in the U.S. Army in that war, as did Whatley. Stone and Weiner were also soldiers, serving in Vietnam. Jackson was in the U.S. Coast Guard, which was activated as a Naval component during the Korean War. Arnold and Casares were each U.S. Marines in that conflict.
Griner dropped out of high school in Chicago and decided to try the military as an alternative, he said.
“They wondered what in the world they were going to do with me, and I said I wanted to join the service,” the former seaman said.
He spent four years in the Navy, mostly driving amphibious landing vehicles, ferrying Marines from troop transport ships to the beaches of Guam, the Marshall Islands, Okinawa, Saipan — and Iwo Jima.
He was wounded while on the island of Tinian and received a Purple Heart. After the war, he returned to the states, first settling in Los Angeles, where he met and married his wife of 59 years, Erna. According to Griner, he worked different jobs before starting his own manufacturing business, which was almost completely lost during the 1965 Watts Riots.
The factory, which turned out bent plywood and other products, was eventually rebuilt, and Griner worked into his Golden Years, then retired to the Coachella Valley, where his wife passed away in 2008.
He said he now tinkers in his garage and writes books of poetry, with the 15th — “Rose Petals” — going to print in a few weeks.
“Getting a diploma never came to mind. I didn’t let it,” Griner said. “I just bypassed it because I learned enough on my own. My wife was a lot smarter than I was, so every time I had a problem, I’d ask her. Nobody ever asked me if I had a diploma, and I wasn’t about to tell them.”
He said having the graduation certificate will be a “fun” milestone and “might make me a better speller.”
The county Office of Education holds Operation Recognition ceremonies for the benefit of veterans of World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars. Under the program, vets are eligible to receive certificates even though they never finished school.
The program was initiated in 2007, with events always immediately before or after Veterans Day. More than 350 diplomas have been awarded to date.
Operation Recognition is based on California Education Code 51440, which permits the retroactive granting of graduation certificates to honorably discharged or retired veterans who served while the country was on a war footing. All they have to do is sign up.