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Veteran graduates

Donald Kuhn shows his honorary degree from Natrona County High School on Friday afternoon in Casper. Kuhn, who started boot camp on his 17th birthday in 1960, served seven years in the military and performed one tour in Vietnam.

CASPER, Wyo. — Donald Kuhn didn’t like school.

“My favorite subject was girls,” he said.

He left Natrona County High School halfway through his junior year to join the Army.

The self-described hell-raiser handed over his books on Jan 26, 1960. He joined the Army on the 27th. He sold his 1949 Indian Motorcycle, took a train to Denver and spent his 17th birthday — his first day in the Army — performing drills in boot camp at Fort Carson, Colo.

“I could see myself headed down the wrong road,” he said. “Joining the Army seemed like the thing to do to get out of that environment.”

The now-70-year-old Kuhn has no regrets about his life in the military. It’s an unbeatable deal, he said. He served in Germany until he left for Vietnam in 1965. He calls his deployment to Vietnam a 30-day cruise through the Atlantic and Mediterranean. The ride home from the war-torn country on a behemoth airplane was a gift from taxpayers, he said. But one thing always nagged him.

He never earned his high school diploma.

After a 52-year wait, the Casper native is now an honorary graduate of NCHS's Class of 1961. The Wyoming Veterans Commission awarded him an honorary diploma on Friday. Kuhn is one of thousands across the nation who left high school early to serve their country. Wyoming has been granting honorary degrees to discharged Vietnam veterans since 2004. Known as Operation Recognition, the program originated with World War II and Korean War veterans who were in the same boat as Kuhn.

“So many soldiers didn’t finish,” said Larry Barttelbort, executive director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission. “It’s a nice way to say thank you to those who raised their hands.”

Chad Shape is a first-year assistant principal at NCHS. Kuhn was the first and oldest person he has ever handed a diploma.

“It was a real treat,” he said.

Sen. John Barrasso gave Kuhn an American flag to accompany the diploma. Kuhn also received a booklet of thank-you letters from the rest of the Wyoming congressional delegation, Gov. Matt Mead and other political figures honoring him for his service. NCHS football coach Steve Harshman autographed a state champions ball cap for Kuhn. It sat atop his head hours after the ceremony, with the tag still on.

Kuhn found out about Operation Recognition thanks to Agent Orange. After his grandson returned from a tour with the Air Force National Guard in Kuwait, Kuhn was thumbing through booklets on benefits for veterans. He saw that he could receive help to treat his ailments caused by the deadly chemical. During his research he also found out that he was eligible to receive an honorary high school diploma. After a year of work, the Wyoming Veterans Commission had lined up a ceremony for Kuhn at the Casper Armory.

He has his GED, but there’s a real stigma when you don’t have a high school diploma, said Kuhn’s wife, Ramona. Kuhn has gone to many of his high school reunions, but often feels like an outsider for not having graduated, she said.

“This gives him a sense of belonging now,” she said. “I think it means a tremendous amount to him.”

Kuhn said that when he returned from the war in 1966, public opinion of soldiers wasn’t hospitable.

“I was spit on,” he said. “There were no bands. There was no welcome home.”

Kuhn welcomed home all veterans with an open heart at his ceremony Friday.

“I don’t think I could have gotten more emotional at an actual graduation than I did today,” he said.

Kuhn is a grandfather of six and great-grandfather of three. He was selling guns and ammo at the Casper Gun Show on Friday afternoon. He had gun boxes filled with plastic bags of bullets. And five types of rifles for the public to peruse.

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He was jovial and talkative with the customers in an environment where war is a talking point. He wore a camouflage jacket and laid out three tables with his merchandise.

"If I sell it all, I will use the money to buy more," he said.

A man came up and asked to buy some bullets.

“How much?” he asked.

“You got a five-dollar bill,” Kuhn replied.

“I’d rather give you a three-dollar bill,” the man said.

“Let’s meet somewhere in between,” Kuhn said.

The man gave him $4.

The recent high school graduate likes gun shows because they are like high school dances.

“You get to socialize,” he said.

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