ERIE, Colo. (CBS4) - Nearly 60 years after leaving Erie High School to serve in the Marines during the Vietnam War, veteran Ron Cardenas was finally given the graduation ceremony he earned in the 1960s. Cardenas, now 75, dropped out of high school in the 1960s in pursuit of service to his country. However, the Purple Heart recipient was never given a diploma.
"That first couple weeks (in the Marines) was hell. I wondered, 'What the hell did I get into?'" Cardenas told CBS4's Dillon Thomas.
Cardenas said he was in Vietnam when he turned 19 and at one point found himself caught in the middle of a battle with the enemy. He recalled being nearly completely surrounded by enemy fire. Most of his fellow soldiers were unable to escape on their own feet. As he retreated and fought back, Cardenas recalled being trapped while battling for his life.
Cardenas said he found himself in a gun battle with another soldier when he was wounded.
"I know I killed him. But, before I shot him he sent a rocket propelled grenade over. My face was bleeding," Cardenas said. "A piece of shrapnel took out my left eye."
Cardenas miraculously lived to tell the story. Since his time in the service he has dedicated many days to coaching students at Erie High School and attending sporting events. He has also worked hard to be able to pay for his children and grandchildren to attend higher education, something he wasn't able to do without a diploma.
On Friday, students and staff at Erie High School gathered for an assembly to hear from Cardenas about his service. But, while he was on stage the school's principal, Matt Buchler, also recognized Cardenas by awarding him his diploma.
"It's a very special day for me," Cardenas said.
"Today is a really 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 an enormous amount of courage and heroism."
Cardenas, a former baseball player for the school, was also awarded the 1964 male athlete of the year award following receiving his diploma.
"This moment has been 58 years in the making for me," Cardenas said. "It's something I'll put next to my kids' diplomas. See, I got mine, too. It is important to me. It is important to say I finally got it."
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