DANVILLE — After watching the images of young American troops fighting in South Vietnam on TV each night, Jack Crawley decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps so he could fight alongside them. Never mind that he was only 18 and still a senior at Danville High School.
"I felt it was my obligation to go," said Crawley, who was set to graduate in 1966.
So one day in September 1965, Crawley and his best friend, Frank Koss, went to the recruiting office and signed up for the Buddy Program in the hope of being assigned to the same platoon. It was the only time Crawley had ever skipped school.
Back home, he ran into his father and told him what he had done. His father told him he was proud of his decision.
"But I should know that if I didn't get an education, it was going to be awfully tough to get a job when I got back," Crawley said, recalling his father's words.
Crawley, 67, of Danville, never regretted his decision to serve his country. However, he did regret not ever getting his high school diploma.
This week, Crawley and at least one other veteran — George Sisson, Class of 1970 — will get their long-awaited diplomas at the high school's 17th annual Salute to Veterans Concert.
"We established this event in the mid-1990s to show our appreciation to the men and women who have served our country with honor," Superintendent Mark Denman said. And, he added, conferring diplomas to eligible veterans has been one of the highlights of the program since 2002.
That year, the Illinois Legislature passed a law allowing school districts to award diplomas to World War II and Korean War veterans who left high school to serve in the armed forces and were honorably discharged. Then in 2008, Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, introduced legislation to include honorably discharged Vietnam veterans.
Denman said about 30 WWII and Korean war veterans received their diploma that first year. The school has continued to receive requests most years since then.
"There's no time limit," Denman said, adding eligible veterans may request a diploma at anytime.
He said some veterans have chosen to receive their diploma at the annual concert or the commencement ceremony. However, they can choose to have it mailed to them, if they prefer.
Crawley was sent to sent to basic training for eight weeks instead of 12 because the war was "hot and heavy," he recalled. Then his platoon was shipped to South Vietnam to protect the Chu Lai Air Base.
A machine gunner, Crawley spent most of his tour defending the base and going out into the jungle on search-and-destroy missions. One time, after returning from a mission, he saw Koss in a food line.
"He was coming off of a search-and-destroy mission," Crawley recalled. "That was the only time we ever saw each other" during the war.
Crawley returned home in September 1967. Unlike today, no one at the airport was holding a "welcome home" banner or waving a flag for him or other returning service members; in fact, no one would look at him.
Then he saw Joyce, his girlfriend since the eighth grade, running toward him. His parents were close behind.
"To me, that was the greatest homecoming I could ever have," Crawley said.
Crawley returned to Danville and married Joyce, and the couple had five children. With his father's words still echoing in his ears, he got a job at the Pepsi Cola Bottling Co. loading trucks and "worked my tail off."
Crawley worked his way up to swing driver, route driver, route manager, sales manager, marketing director and eventually general manager. When he retired from Pepsi after 25 years, he ran his own business, J&J Snacks, for another 10 years. He tried to retire, but after he three months, he was ready to go back to work. He spent another 10 years managing the sporting goods department at Big R.
Despite his long, successful career, Crawley said not having his diploma continued to weigh on his mind now and then. Now, he's thrilled finally to have the opportunity to walk across the auditorium stage and receive it before his family and friends.
Sisson, 61, of Danville, said knows how Crawley feels.
Sisson joined the Marines in November 1970, shortly after turning 19 and half a credit shy of earning his diploma.
Sisson spent six months of his two years on active duty pulling security at the Bien Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam during the Operation Linebacker II aerial bombing campaign. When he returned home in 1973, he studied business management at Danville Junior College and then had a successful career in restaurant and hotel management.
"It's one of those things you want to complete in life," Sisson said of getting his diploma after all of these years. "Now, it's a chapter I can finally close."
Salute to veterans scheduled
Danville High School's 17th annual Salute to Veterans Concert will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday in the Dick Van Dyke Auditorium, 202 E. Fairchild St.
It is free and open to the public. All veterans and service members and their families are encouraged to attend.
The event will be narrated by Mayor Scott Eisenhauer. It will feature a combined symphony orchestra, combined symphonic band and combined choir under the director of instrumental music director Kent Krause and choral director Kassy Krause.
During the event, the school's Junior ROTC honor guard will present the colors, and the music groups will perform John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" and other patriotic numbers. Also, each branch of the military will be recognized during the Armed Forces Salute.
Also, former Mayor Bob Jones, a U.S. Army veteran, will be inducted into the school's Wall of Fame.