Every year since 2007, the Riverside County Office of Education has honored a particular breed of military veteran: Those who sacrificed the completion of their formal public education in order to serve their country and other countries in their time of need. In a special graduation ceremony, authorized to recognize the real-life education they acquired in the armed forces, we present these veterans, at long last, with their high school diplomas.
The ceremony is called Operation Recognition, and on November 9, another 30 diplomas were awarded to veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Each honoree was, of course, deserving; each had a story not just of service, but of forfeiting their education - a selfless act which shaped the rest of their lives.
But if there's a classic example of why we celebrate Operation Recognition, it can be found in Claude Chastain. Mr. Chastain was one of our honorees this year. A Hemet resident, he’s remarkably tall and fit for 87. He's a Navy veteran of World War II, and like a lot of vets who survived truly desperate times, he declines to talk about the battles in which he took part. But we know this: He served two-and-a-half years in the South Pacific. He was involved in 12 amphibious landings, as the Marines fought their way through the islands. He was awarded eight combat stars. And, as he puts it, for the first year he was overseas, he was part of "Beach Party Number One". That is the most telling fact of all. It means that even as his high school classmates were finishing their senior year in Los Angeles, and tossing their caps in the joyous peacetime right-of-passage of graduation, 18-year-old Claude Chastain was wading ashore under murderous fire with the first wave of Marines, scouting for a good piece of beach for landing craft to use.
After the war, Mr. Chastain made his living in the oil fields, in production and drilling. He made a successful life. But almost 70 years later, he still wanted that diploma. As Riverside County Superintendent of Schools, I'm honored to have the chance to meet with veterans like Claude Chastain every year at Operation Recognition. I'm grateful to be able to shake their hands and say thanks. And I'm proud to be able to finally declare them full-fledged high school graduates. It gives me the opportunity to see in their eyes the meaning this American touchstone of education still holds for them.
For a look at this year's Operation Recognition, and a chance to meet some of these vets yourself, visit our website at www.rcoe.us.