In early 1943, Donald Huisenga was attending Auburn High School in Iowa, looking forward to graduating that year.
But in March 1943 at the age of 18, he was drafted into the Army less than two months before he would have received his diploma.
He served his country for the next two years.
On June 6, 1944, just three days before the Normandy invasion, he parachuted out of a plane and was injured by artillery fire while doing reconnaissance work.
“All I had on me was a shredded shirt, shorts and no shoes,” Huisenga told the San Angelo Standard-Times.
He was discovered, injured, by German soldiers and spent months in a German prisoner-of-war camp. When he entered the camp, he was 175 pounds; when he left, he weighed 100.
But he was released, and eventually made it back to the states and created a life for himself. He settled down, started a career, got married and had kids — and grandkids.
And yet for all his great service, there was something that still galled him: He’d never received his diploma. He’d nearly given his life for his country, but for decades he still wished he could’ve gotten that diploma.
That regret surfaced during a conversation with a medical social worker at the West Texas VA in San Angelo, Texas, according to Fox News. Her name was Tess Gooding, and she was about to turn feelings of regret into ones of joy.
“He was telling me about his time as a prisoner of war, at which point he mentioned that he had never graduated high school,” Gooding said, the Standard-Times reported.
“And so I thought, ‘You know, I’ll just reach out to the high school back in Iowa.’ I’m originally from the area. Worst case scenario, they’ll say no.”
So in November of last year, she called East Sac High School — formerly known as Auburn High School — and asked to speak to principal Kevin Litterer.
“I was in my office when my administrative assistant answered the phone,” Litterer recalled. “She jumped up and said, ‘Kevin, you need to take this phone call right now.’”
After hearing Huisenga’s story, his answer “was absolutely yes.” When the issue was brought before the East Sac County School Board of Education four days later, their answer was also a resounding, unanimous “yes.”
Litterer posted on Facebook about the event, saying that this opportunity was one of the greatest things that has happened in his life.
“On January 5 I will be flying down to San Angelo, TX to present Mr. Huisenga with his ‘well-earned’ high school diploma,” he wrote. “In my opinion Donald Huisenga earned his diploma on the beaches of Normandy, France fighting for the freedoms we all enjoy today.”
The date for Huisenga’s long-awaited graduation ceremony was set for Jan. 5, and Litterer made the trip to Texas, so he could personally hand the veteran and graduate, now 98, the diploma he’d wanted for nearly 80 years.
“The gentleman in the middle is Donald J. Huisenga–One of the most amazing people I have ever met,” Litterer posted on Facebook. “His life as a soldier, a husband, a father, and a grandfather are values all of us should aspire to. I cannot thank Mr. Huisenga enough for allowing me the opportunity to share in this special moment with him. I got to meet his amazing family and they treated Beth and I like we were part of the family.
“Donald shared stories of his days in Auburn, his time as a soldier, and his life after the service. I could spend days talking with him about his life but I am thankful I, at least, had a few short hours to visit with this amazing man.
“After the last 3 days I have come to the following conclusion. THE WORLD IS A GOOD PLACE We can get bogged down with bad or we can look for the good. After the last three days I will be taking the latter path. God is Good.”
Upon receiving his diploma, Huisenga said, “I made it,” the Standard-Times reported. The veteran also stated he was “thrilled to pieces” to finally be an official graduate.
Everyone in attendance recognized his sacrifices and Gooding’s essential role in getting the veteran the recognition he deserved.
“I always hoped that I would get a diploma,” Huisenga said, “I am pleased as punch. I’m so pleased, I couldn’t be any more pleased.”