Dennis Collins, 60, a former Craig resident who now lives in Grand Junction, will be among the Moffat County High School students earning their high school diplomas today during commencement services. Collins, originally a member of the 1966 MCHS class, went to Vietnam in 1964 and wasn't able to graduate with his class. He is honored with his diploma through Operation Recognition, which allows veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam to receive diplomas.

Emily Anderson/Grand Junction Free Press

Dennis Collins, 60, a former Craig resident who now lives in Grand Junction, will be among the Moffat County High School students earning their high school diplomas today during commencement services. Collins, originally a member of the 1966 MCHS class, went to Vietnam in 1964 and wasn't able to graduate with his class. He is honored with his diploma through Operation Recognition, which allows veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam to receive diplomas.

Country, community, commencement

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— The year was 1964, and Dennis Collins, a wild, 17-year-old Moffat County High School junior, had a family tradition to follow and a country to protect.

"Vietnam was becoming a big issue," Collins said. "It was just kind of what you did.

"I was raised to believe you served your country and whenever you got out, you served your community."

The Collins clan was a Navy family. Service was in his blood.

His father, Ken, served in World War II, and before him, his grandfather, Duane, in World War I. Given that history, and the principles he was raised on, there was no question what the young man would do next.

He enlisted in the Navy.

He was sent to Vietnam in 1966 and served into 1967 as an aviation hydraulicsman, maintaining C-130s - the "semitrailers of the war" - and helping transport anything from soldiers and those killed in action to milk and Agent Orange, he said.

At the same time, the teens in his MCHS class of 1966 were a world away living a life altogether different. They were graduating from high school, an achievement Collins' military service prevented him from participating in.

Fast forward 42 years.

The oversight from decades ago will be rectified at 10 a.m. today.

Collins, 60, joins more than 150 high school seniors in donning cap and gown and receiving their high school diplomas during commencement services in the MCHS gymnasium.

"I think it's about as cool a thing as I've ever heard of," Collins said.

That Collins is old enough to be a grandparent to the students he's graduating with isn't lost on him.

"It's going to be a little strange," Collins said, adding that he'd be 80 years old by the time the class has its 20-year reunion. That's a reunion he vows to attend.

"I'm coming," Collins said. "I'm coming in a wheelchair if I have to. I'll be there. You bet I'll be there."

A state law enacted in 2003 authorized veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam to receive their high school diplomas through a program dubbed Operation Recognition. Essentially, the program recognizes the "sacrifice and contribution of those who honorably served our country," Moffat County High School reported in a news release.

The program, according to the Colorado Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, operates under the leadership of the State Board of Veterans Affairs and is supported by the State Department of Education.

"One day, these individuals were carrying textbooks and the next they were carrying weapons in order to protect our nation and preserve our freedom," according to the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs Web site. "The sacrifices they made changed their lives and teenage experiences and, in turn, made ours better.

"Each and every veteran obtained experience the hard way and then learned the lessons of life."

This year isn't the first time MCHS has honored veterans through Operation Recognition.

In 2005, 17 veterans earned their diplomas, including one posthumously. However, this year will be different, principal Jane Harmon said.

This year, the high school will be able to devote more time to honoring a veteran earning a long-awaited diploma.

"We can take a couple of minutes and recognize him individually," she said of Collins, who will have his own seat on the graduation stage.

At graduation practice Thursday, the student body was informed of Collins' situation. Their response:

"They all applauded," Harmon said. "I didn't ask them to do that. They had an excitement all of their own. : It was exciting to me the students showed that enthusiasm. I think it did mean something to them."

Although it's his service to country the high school is honoring today, when looking back on that time, Collins said he neither likes nor dislikes his time in southeast Asia.

"In Vietnam, you didn't like it or not like it," said Collins, a Grand Junction resident who has lived in Craig on three separate occasions. "It was something you did because it was something your country said to do. : It was my duty to do it, and I did it."

True to the lessons learned at the feet of his father, Collins went on to serve his community upon ending his military service in 1968.

He became a police officer in Colorado Springs, and later worked for the Moffat County Sheriff's Office and the Craig Police Department. He also has been a prison guard for the Department of Corrections.

He has had a variety of jobs since then, including owning and operating Great West Appraisal, a firm that investigated insurance claims, working as a professional rodeo cowboy, a NASCAR driver, and chapter president and state representative for the Christian Motorcyclists Association.

Collins waged and won a battle with cancer in 2006. He has since been "cured," he said, and has a new lease on life that includes a desire to "live to be 120."

He is mostly retired and is considering what to pursue on the next horizon.

Collins said he is thankful to the State Board of Veterans Affairs - which approved his qualifications for earning the diploma - Moffat County High School and Harmon for today's opportunity.

"Most of all," he said, "I want to thank the kids for taking on an old fart like me. They're making an old man's dream come true."

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