ERIE, Colorado (CBS4) — Nearly 60 years after leaving Erie High School to serve in the Marines during the Vietnam War, veteran Ron Cardenas has finally received the graduation ceremony he earned in the 1960s. Cardenas, Today 75, dropped out of high school in the 1960s in an effort to do service to his country. However, the Purple Heart recipient never received a diploma.
“Those first few weeks (in the Marines) were hell. I thought, ‘What the hell did I get myself into?'” Cardenas told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas.
Cardenas said he was in Vietnam when he was 19 and at some point found himself caught in the middle of a battle with the enemy. He remembers being almost completely surrounded by enemy fire. Most of his fellow soldiers were unable to escape on their own. As he retreated and fought back, Cardenas remembered being framed as he fought for his life.
Cardenas said he got into a shootout with another soldier when he was injured.
“I know I killed him. But, before I shot him, he threw a rocket-propelled grenade. My face was bleeding,” Cardenas said. “A shrapnel tore out my left eye.”
Cardenas miraculously lived to tell the tale. Since his time with the service, he has spent many days coaching students at Erie High School and attending sporting events. He also worked hard to be able to pay for the higher education of his children and grandchildren, which he could not do without a diploma.
On Friday, students and staff at Erie High School gathered for an assembly to hear Cardenas talk about his service. But, while onstage, school principal Matt Buchler also recognized Cardenas as he presented him with his diploma.
“It’s a very special day for me,” Cardenas said.
“Today is a truly special day in the history of Erie High School,” Buchler said. “One of the messages is about sacrifice. Being a young man, deploying to Vietnam in a war zone, took a lot of courage and heroism.
Cardenas, a former school baseball player, also received the 1964 Male Athlete of the Year award after graduating.
“This moment took 58 years to prepare for me,” Cardenas said. “It’s something that I will put next to my children’s diplomas. You see, I have mine too. Its important to me. It is important to say that I finally understood.