Posthumous diplomas for fallen heroes

U.S. Army troops taking a break while on patrol in Vietnam, 1968
More than 58,000 Americans gave their lives in the Vietnam War. They came from every state in the union and from many different communities in Illinois. The United States drafted young men into the armed forces until near the end of the war, but a great many also volunteered to fight for our nation in Southeast Asia.

Among those who gave their lives far from home a half century ago were three young men from Fulton County in western Illinois who left Canton High School for the military before their graduation.

“It is impossible for me to imagine any of my current high school juniors and seniors dropping out of school to go to war, yet it wasn’t long ago when students of that age were leaving this very high school to go and risk their lives in dangerous and far-away places,” said Canton Union School District Superintendent Rolf Sivertsen.

Sivertsen wanted to honor the three servicemen from Canton, and he spoke with State Representative Mike Unes (R-East Peoria) with a unique idea. Their conversation produced legislation which Unes filed this spring, House Bill 2177.

“This bill allows school districts to honor their former students who never received the chance to lead a normal life that nearly all young graduates enjoy,” Unes said.

Unes’ legislation would change state law to allow school districts to present posthumous diplomas to any service member who was killed in action while on active military duty in the armed forces of the United States if he or she resided within the current boundaries of the district, left high school before graduating in order to serve in the armed forces, and did not receive a high school diploma.

“Honoring these soldiers with a posthumous diploma is the very least that we can do to recognize their tremendous bravery,” Sivertsen said. “The Canton Union School District is extremely grateful to Representative Unes for introducing this unique legislation.”

“That was a different era,” Unes said on February 19 as he presented the bill to the House Elementary and Secondary Education: School Curriculum and Policies Committee. “During the Vietnam War when our veterans came back they weren’t welcomed in the same way that our veterans are welcomed back now after fighting in combat.”

The bill passed the committee unanimously, 20-0, and a month later it was agreed to by the House 113-0. In the Senate the bill was sponsored by Sen. Jil Tracy (R-Quincy) and it passed 55-0 in May.

The presentation of the diplomas, Unes said, offers more than just an honor for a fallen American service member. It also is a chance to help high school students today understand the sacrifices which previous generations; including those who sat in the very same classrooms; have made for our freedoms.

“There can never be too many ways to recognize those who have given the ultimate sacrifice to our country with their military service,” Unes said. “It is my privilege to help create this opportunity to remember those brave young soldiers who sacrificed their own futures for the sake of ours.”