By Olivia Young
DENVER (KCNC) — In 1969, Thomas Dreiling was a typical senior at Ranum High School in Westminster. But instead of graduating, he went to war.
“I had a low draft number, so I just decided I needed to go,” said Dreiling. “It was a wakeup call. I grew up.”
Dreiling spent 13 months in Vietnam where he was exposed to Agent Orange.
“I have diabetes because of it, I have a heart problem,” Dreiling expressed, “I had a disease on three of my main arteries and they had to do surgery last year and then I have Parkinson’s.”
He went on to serve in the Navy Reserve and eventually became an electrician.
“It’s always been a weight on my shoulders not having a diploma. I didn’t ever need my diploma, but it’s always been something that’s been back there,” Dreiling said.
But decades later, he got a second chance at that dream when he read about Operation Recognition.
It’s a new VA program that grants high school diplomas to veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, who never got that chance to graduate.
“I looked at that and thought wow I could do that,” Dreiling said.
His sister went through the process of nominating him and soon, Dreiling received a call inviting him to graduate.
“I was nervous. But kinda excited too,” Dreiling said.
He traveled to Colorado from his home in Mobile, Alabama for the ceremony.
On June 15, he walked across the stage with the Westminster High School class of 2023.
“I walked into that room and the whole graduating class was clapping for me,” Dreiling recalled.
He wore a stole he made and his old school’s colors. Ranum High School no longer exists and is now a middle school.
“So they gave me the tassel thing, the cap and gown, and it was all green and gold,” Dreiling said.
After more than 50 years of waiting, Dreiling received his high school diploma.
“It made me feel like the weight was lifted, like I finally got a diploma, I don’t have to be ashamed of it anymore,” Dreiling said.
A final badge of honor for a decorated veteran.
“I’m gonna take it out of this little packet and frame it and hang it on the wall with my flag,” Dreiling said.
Dreiling says he is the first person in Colorado to take part in Operation Recognition, but he knows many other Vietnam veterans, who never got their diplomas.
He’s hoping some of them will hear his story and decide to follow his lead.
You can find more information on the program here: bit.ly/3pj2I9o
Please note: This content carries a strict local market embargo. If you share the same market as the contributor of this article, you may not use it on any platform.