ELIZABETHTOWN — Some learn about life from books; Harry Denton got an education from experience.
Denton, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, received his high-school diploma a half century after his peers and on the same day as a grandson, Tyler Poitras, and grand-niece, Kacie Rider.
In fact, Denton had to rise early to attend the mid-morning ceremony for Poitras, as his school is in Saratoga.
Then he returned home to take the stage himself at Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School, where he and Rider would accept their diplomas.
“There are other things besides school where one can get an education,” Denton said.
His grand-niece had only admiration for him.
“I just found out today that he would be graduating with me,” she said recently. “It’s pretty awesome to have a great-uncle that has had so many experiences.
“We always like to go to his hunting camp.”
Denton’s wife, Cecile, was pleased with the honor bestowed on her husband.
“It’s nice. I’m glad they are honoring him,” she said. “Sometimes veterans don’t get honored until they pass on.”
Denton has no regrets concerning his service.
“The military is a good thing. It does a body good,” he said. “It helps you learn to follow and work with others and take orders.
“I had many experiences I might not have had, like flying in helicopters. I think everybody should have an experience like the military for two, three or four years.”
Denton was wounded twice in battle during the Vietnam War. One of his two Purple Hearts was presented to him by the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland.
‘FIGHTING ALL AROUND’
Drafted into the Army, as were many soldiers in the 1960s, he was assigned to the 1st Air Cavalry, stationed at An Khe in the rugged Central Highlands.
Specialist 4th Class Denton was just fulfilling his military obligation.
The first time he was wounded, he was grazed by a bullet when on patrol. After a week’s recovery, he was back out there.
Then, during a jungle search-and-destroy mission in September 1966, his unit found itself battling a North Vietnamese brigade that outnumbered the Americans 3 to 1.
“We got caught in an ambush,” Denton told the Press-Republican in an earlier interview. “They (the Vietcong) were hidden in the trees. We couldn’t see them but knew where the firing was coming from.
“There was fighting all around us.”
AIR MEDAL, TOO
Shot in the right shoulder, he lay there for an hour and a half as sniper fire and mortar rounds hit all around. At last, a chopper was able to pick him up and take him to a field hospital.
That’s where Westmoreland presented him and other wounded soldiers there with Purple Hearts.
Denton was also honored with the Air Medal for his participation in 25 aerial missions over hostile ground.
His high-school diploma helped remove the lingering sting from the rebuff he and others in the military experienced upon their return home from Vietnam.
“When I got back, people didn’t want anything to do with us because we went to Vietnam,” he said earlier.
“It wasn’t our fault about the war and being sent there.”
In his graduation address, ELCS Superintendent Scott Osborne said, “Tonight, in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of graduation here in Elizabethtown-Lewis, we’re honored to award an official ELCS high-school diploma through Operation Recognition to Harry R. Denton of New Russia, New York.
“Harry proudly resides in New Russia with his lovely wife, Cecile, of 45 years. Many of us have seen Mr. Denton here at school working as a substitute employee from time to time.
“But be careful, Harry is not to be confused with his twin brother, Larry Denton, who also works for ELCS.”
Section 305 of the New York State Education Law created Operation Recognition to commemorate the dedication and sacrifice of World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans who left school before graduation, either by voluntary service or draft.
“Mr. Denton,” Osborne continued, “our community and our country thanks you for your service and sacrifice in defense of this great nation.
“On behalf of Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School, I am very honored to award this high-school diploma to Harry Robert Denton.”
A sustained standing ovation followed.
Email Alvin Reiner:firstname.lastname@example.org