James Lee was a typical high school senior. His thoughts lingered on the prom, graduation, his future career. But instead of walking down the commencement aisle, he found himself running into battle with Gen. George Patton's Third Army.
Mr. Lee was sent to fight in World War II in 1943, and when he got home, he had four battle stars, two Purple Hearts, and no high school diploma. "If you didn't get a job," he says, "you didn't eat." So he went to work.
Now, 57 years later, Lee is finally getting his diploma - as are thousands of other vets like him.
As America looks toward the 21st century, the diplomas are part of a growing movement to honor those who won what was arguably the defining victory of the 20th. The ceremonies aren't merely touching veterans' hearts: They are also giving young people a window into sacrifices made by their grandparents.
"It's easy for us to forget in our busy days how important this war was," says Foster Wright, principal of Belmont High School in Massachusetts. "It was a war between the forces of good and evil. And this world would be a very different place if evil had won."
Himself a Vietnam veteran, he speaks in Belmont High's auditorium. Fifteen World War II veterans, including Lee, fidget in their front-row seats, while hundreds in the current graduating class look on.
"It's giving me chills sitting here," says one of those seniors, Lee Bloom. He stares intensely at the vets, who wear suits and starched shirts as comfortably as teens today wear T-shirts and jeans.
"It's hard for me to think about or imagine what it must have been like for them to go to war at such a young age; not to finish this [high school] experience," says Mr. Bloom, who is about the age these men were when they were sent into combat. "I don't know if I could do it."
When the ceremony ends, Bloom is wiping tears from his eyes: "I don't think I'll cry that much at our graduation."
The program behind the diplomas, called Operation Recognition, was founded here in Massachusetts last year by the Department of Veterans Services and supported by state lawmakers.
But the veterans department is sowing its seeds nationwide. The program has already taken root in states from California to Minnesota to West Virginia.
"I'm not stopping until every state offers it at least once," says Robert McKean, the Bay State veterans official who heads Operation Recognition.
He is not alone in his desire. The Second World War has always fascinated Americans, and its veterans are often honored in hometown parades and county fairs. And now, several nationwide efforts are under way to recognize their service:
*A $100-million World War II Memorial is set to break ground this summer in Washington.
*World War II military heroes will be immortalized on new 33-cent stamps coming out May 3.
*A group of senators is pushing President Clinton to designate May 25 as a national day to honor minority soldiers who fought in the war.
While many of the soldiers returning home in 1945 went on to college, aided by the GI Bill, many more like Lee came home looking for work.
To receive diplomas today, veterans must have served in the armed forces between Sept. 16, 1940, and Dec. 31, 1946, and have been honorably discharged. In Massachusetts alone, 2,400 vets have received their high school diplomas through Operation Recognition.
West Virginia is the latest state to adopt the program. It also includes vets of World War I, Korea, and Vietnam. "The veterans of all these wars made sacrifices," says Gail Harper, state director of Veterans Affairs.
Having sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to war, West Virginia is expecting to see big numbers once ceremonies begin in May. There are still 60,000 World War II veterans in the state, Ms. Harper says, and "a great number of those never graduated from high school."
Nebraska's program also includes World War I veterans, and its oldest - at 105 - recently received his high school diploma. But the majority, almost 700 soldiers so far, are World War II vets.
"A lot of these fellows left Nebraska farms and came back to a country in shambles and had to go back to work," says Ann Masters, state administrator of education policy and programs. "They didn't have the opportunity to go back to high school. Some were too old; some were at a different time in their lives."
Lessons for young generation
This is a way, however small, to honor what they gave up for our country, Ms. Masters says. Diplomas are handed out at school-board meetings, Veterans of Foreign Wars meetings, even mailed. But the best way, Masters feels, is at assemblies in the schools these veterans actually attended.
"It's a great way to teach civic responsibility to high school kids," she says. "And some of these gentlemen can tell great stories."
Consider Massachusetts brothers Anthony and Peter Bella, who were sent to different spheres of the conflict.
Anthony, sent to war in 1941, spent most of his time fighting the Japanese in the Aleutian Islands.
Peter went to Europe in 1942 as a gunner in the Sixth Armored Division under General Patton. Remembering the German stand at the Battle of the Bulge, he says, "That was quite a battle we had."
Today, the two brothers, once so geographically apart, graduate side-by-side.
Arthur Marchetta also graduates today. During his junior year at Belmont High School, he was sent to France and Germany to clean up after the war ended in 1945.
"I thought it was great that the kids were here and they could see the sacrifices we made when we left home," he says.
Grinning, he pulls his family closer and grips his red embossed diploma as his daughter proudly snaps photos.
"It took me 50-odd years to get out of high school," he laughs. "But I did it."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society