By Curt Yeomans
Nearly five decades after he dropped out of Forest Park High School to join the Marines, William Arnold Hartness can finally put his high school diploma on display at his McDonough home.
On Nov. 1, of this year -- 46 years after he dropped out of high school -- Hartness, 61, got his high school diploma during a meeting of the county's school board. Clayton County Public Schools officials presented him with the diploma, in a burgundy leather frame, with his old school's name written in gold lettering.
An Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps colonel presented the diploma to the former Marine, and then saluted him. School system Superintendent Edmond Heatley, himself a retired Marine, then congratulated Hartness and gave the Marine cheer "Ooh-Rah!"
Parents, students and school system staff members in the audience then stood and applauded.
"It makes me proud -- I couldn't explain it," the war veteran said in an interview Wednesday.
Hartness was able to receive his diploma under a 2002 state law that authorizes school systems to grant high school diplomas to honorably discharged veterans who stopped their education to serve in the military during the Korean, and Vietnam wars.
According to Official Code of Georgia Annotated, 20-2-70, Vietnam veterans, who served in the military between Aug. 5, 1964, and May 7, 1975, and who enrolled in high school between 1960, and 1975, can go back to the school system they were enrolled in, to receive their high school diplomas.
Hartness said he only found out about the law in March of this year, and after some phone calls to the Georgia Department of Education, began the process of receiving his diploma.
"I just had to prove I served during the war, and that I was honorably discharged," he said.
The law encourages school systems to present approved diplomas to the veterans around Veteran's Day -- which is today.
Hartness dropped out of Forest Park High School in 1964, just as his junior year was about to begin, to join the U.S. Marine Corps. He was 17 at the time. The nation was just about to enter a long military conflict in Vietnam, after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, where a U.S. Navy destroyer was fired upon by the North Vietnamese navy, off the coast of North Vietnam in August of that year.
"I just got to a point where I thought dropping out of school and joining the military was the right thing for me to do," he said.
He did his training at Parris Island, South Carolina, where he said drill sergeants "could do everything to you, except beat you."
When he went to Vietnam, in 1967, he was assigned to duty in Da Nang, he said. "I spent one year in Vietnam, and that was enough," Hartness said.
The former Marine said his time in Vietnam was spent performing "patrols, ambushes, stuff like that" against the Viet Cong. He was quick to point out that Marines never took the easy route in getting around.
"The Marines didn't use the roads," he said. "We walked in the rice patties every day, all day. Everything we did was in the rice patties."
He added that his unit got into "a couple" of fire-fights with the Viet Cong. "You couldn't see them because the vegetation was so thick," he said. "They were so well camouflaged."
After he returned to the U.S., Hartness said, he was "separated" from the Marines, meaning he was honorably discharged from his duties. "The people who came back didn't have a duty station that they were assigned to, so they just 'separated' us," he said.
School system spokesman Charles White pointed out that Hartness received the Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam.
Hartness said he came back to Forest Park after he got out of the Marines, and spent the next 20 years "putting dump trucks back together" for the Fontaine Trucking Equipment company. He spent the next 10 years installing rollbacks on wrecking service trucks, he said. He said he is now "medically retired" because of a brain aneurysm he suffered in 1993.
He is now a judge advocate for the Jonesboro Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
During the presentation of Hartness' diploma, Superintendent Edmond Heatley praised the former Marine for his military service during the Vietnam War. The superintendent painted Hartness' dropping out of high school to join the military as his sacrifice to the nation.
"It is an honor to present a diploma to a war veteran," Heatley told Hartness during the diploma presentation. "We understand the contributions that you have made to this nation, and it's very humbling that you gave up your education to protect the freedoms that we have. On behalf of a grateful nation, we thank you."
Hartness said he chose to get his high school diploma because of "the kids I see in school these days. I tell them all the time to stay in school because once they get their high school diploma, nobody can ever take it away from them." He said his only regret was that he did not go to get his diploma before his mother, Helen, died, five years ago.
"She would have been so proud of me," he said.
He added that he now has his diploma sitting in a prominent place in his living room. "It's sitting on my table to my left now," he said during a phone interview. "It seemed like a good place to put it. That way, when everybody comes through my front door, they can see it."
And, nobody can take it away from him.