Gary Lee Hall wore a tassel on his black cowboy hat, and his wife ceremoniously turned it to the side after he received his high school diploma.
The 61-year-old Vietnam veteran was handed his diploma Tuesday, 40 years after he last attended high school.
Hall did not graduate, deciding instead to join the Marine Corps so he could serve in the Vietnam War.
"If you're not doing it for God and country, don't do it at all because that's the only thing that's going to get you through it," Hall said in a video shown at the Stanislaus County Office of Education's annual Operation Recognition ceremony.
After the war, Hall spent so much of his time working until retiring in 1999 that he didn't have time to go to school and get his diploma.
Since 2002, 113 Stanislaus County residents have been given a belated high school diploma as part of Operation Recognition. This year's recipients are Hall, who lives in Ceres; Navy and Vietnam War vet John Steven King, 57, of Modesto; and Marine Corps and Vietnam vet Gary Dean Tollie, 59, of Turlock.
Most audience members teared up during the video, which featured Hall and Tollie talking about their time in Vietnam.
Tollie spent 31 months over a few tours in Vietnam as a member of artillery and other units.
"I didn't graduate. I felt more need to fight for our country than to finish my education," he said in the video. "I saw news reports of young men dying in Vietnam, and I felt it was my turn."
He described Vietnam as a beautiful country, then became pained as he told the story of a battle he and other soldiers fought. One of his comrades saw a grenade land near the group and jumped on it, committing suicide to save Tollie, he said as he tried to bury his tears.
King couldn't attend the ceremony because he had to work, but his wife, Helen, accepted the diploma on his behalf.
"John wanted to dedicate this to his parents, who are in their late 80s, for the sacrifices they made with three sons serving and a son-in-law who died in Vietnam," she said.
King and Hall attended high schools in Stockton. Tol-lie went to Modesto High.
Before the diplomas were handed out, county Superintendent of Schools Tom Changnon read a message from absent Board of Education President Luis Molina, who asked for a moment of silence for all veterans and fallen soldiers, and those affected by the Fort Hood shooting in Texas last week.
Changnon urged everyone to celebrate freedom and the people who have helped provide it. "We don't do that enough every day," he said.