Sixty-nine years ago Claude Chastain Jr. enlisted in the Navy. He was only 17.
Calling himself a man at the time, he opted out of finishing his last year of high school and the chance to graduate with friends, and instead chose to fight with Navy comrades in battle as a coxswain during World War II.
But decades later, Chastain was given the opportunity to walk the stage. At the age of 87, the Hemet resident received his high school diploma.
“I don’t regret a thing,” he said as he looked down at the rows of medals on his uniform jacket. “But I lost out on so many job opportunities because of not having my high school diploma. Now here it is, I can keep going.”
Chastain was one of 30 veterans Wednesday to receive a high school diploma through Operation Recognition, a program of the Riverside County Office of Education that honors those whose high school educations were interrupted during World War II, the Korean or Vietnam wars due to military service or internment. The ceremony was held at the Moreno Valley Conference and Recreation Center.
It was emotional for both veterans and their families.
For Chastain, who attended the ceremony with his wife Sherlee and best friends Dee Jameson and Randy Heyden of Sun City, the proud moment was a long time in coming.
“He’s had his uniform out since Saturday and those ribbons have been rearranged so many times,” Sherlee said. Sherlee was the one to sign Claude up for his moment of glory.
Claude and Sherlee met eight years ago at a dance in Winchester. Four weeks after meeting, they had their first date and headed to Oklahoma and became engaged. The two have been dancing ever since, Sherlee said.
“We’re still newlyweds,” she said as she winked to Claude. He looked over to Sherlee and his eyes lit up.
“She’s amazing,” he said. “She’s why I’m here today. You live life and you let some things go by. My education is something I couldn’t keep passing along.”
Claude said he was thankful for the opportunity to regain one of the most important things in life.
“It’s going on my wall,” he said of the diploma.
More than 230 veterans have received diplomas in Riverside County through the program since a state law was enacted allowing county offices of education to award them.
Wednesday’s ceremony included a color guard flag procession by members of the Elsinore High School Air Force Jr. ROTC and a spirited performance by the Martin Luther King High School Chamber Singers.