- Associated Press - Saturday, June 6, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - In this era, when the biggest decision a teen might make is choosing which filter to use for his latest Instagram post, the decision made in 1941 by 17-year-old Vialquin “Val” Valdez borders on unthinkable.

Rather than finish high school, the teenage Valdez decided to forge a birth certificate and join the U.S. Army.

A year later, he was gunning his way through Italy. Two years after that, he was a captive in a Nazi prisoner of war camp.

Now, more than 70 years later, the 92-year-old Valdez has something he sacrificed as a teen in exchange for privilege of fighting for his country: a high school diploma.

He got an honorary diploma from Cheyenne’s Central High at Friday’s graduation ceremony.

Valdez enlisted in the Army shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He joined up not out a desire to become a war hero - although he soon would become one. He joined because he thought the uniforms were sharp.

And for a teenager, the opportunity to look cool is good enough reason to do just about anything.

“I saw (the Army) guys, and I thought they looked great,” Valdez recalled. “So I said, ‘By golly, if those guys are wearing the uniform, I’m going to wear one too.’”

After a whirlwind tour of military bases for training, Valdez was loaded onto a ship ultimately bound for Sicily.

During the ensuing invasion of Sicily, a well-placed grenade saved several of Valdez’s fellow infantrymen from advancing enemy troops, earning Private Valdez a promotion to sergeant and eventually a Bronze Star for bravery.

After the Allied forces secured the island, Valdez’s unit began the long and bloody march through Italy.

On the Feb, 18, 1944, Valdez, was nursing a knee wound courtesy of a German grenade while manning a gun in a foxhole. German troops were able to take Valdez and 13 other American soldiers captive.

“I thought they were going to just let us have it there,” he said.

Instead, the Nazis marched Valdez and his comrades miles on foot to Rome. He survived the trek on little more than orange peels discarded by his German captors.

Valdez joined hundreds of other captives in a makeshift POW camp housed in a former Italian film lot.

Soon after arriving at the camp, Valdez slipped away from the guards during a daily roll-call. He hid under a parked car.

“If (the German guards) would have seen me hiding under there, they would have shot me,” he said. “I had more guts than brains back then, I guess.”

Valdez, along with two other American captives, waited and waited beneath the parked truck, praying they wouldn’t be spotted. When they sensed the coast was clear, they sprinted away from the prison camp.

They walked all night in the direction of a nearby village, using the flash of anti-aircraft fire in the sky to guide them.

In the village, which was occupied by enemy forces, Valdez found a Catholic priest.

“He took us into some building and he gave me a suit,” Valdez said. “I put that suit on top of my (Army) uniform as a disguise. I felt kind of like I was a spy.”

The Americans moved from village to village for more than a month trying to avoid capture and reunite with U.S. troops.

But they stumbled across a band of German soldiers resting on the side of a road. The officer in charge questioned the ragged travelers and immediately recognized their accents as American.

They were transported back to the Italian prison camp.

There was so little food, the prisoners subsisted on boiled grass. One of soldier ate a cat.

Living in squalor, Valdez’s skin and hair became so lice-ridden “all I would do is scratch like a monkey all day.”

Eventually Valdez was move to a prison in Germany that doubled as a concentration camp. It is clear that more than 70 years have done little to dull the painful memories of what Valdez saw there.

Sitting in the tidy living room of his home in north Cheyenne, the war hero fights back tears as he recounts this part of the story.

He saw groups of dead and dying Jews loaded into trucks and train cars “like haystacks.”

When Valdez met a group of starving Jewish children, he risked his life by giving them his meager daily ration: a single slice of bread and a tiny cup of watery soup.

“Even though the Germans would have shot me for giving them food, I felt so sorry for those poor kids,” he said. “I couldn’t eat my bread in front those kids; they were so hungry.

“I think maybe that’s why the Lord brought me back (to the U.S. after the war). Maybe it was my reward. I was very lucky.”

Throughout 1944 and early 1945, he made several more unsuccessful escape attempts before his German guards fled the camp in the face of advancing Russian forces.

On April 22, 1945, Valdez, barely alive, was finally free after 14 months in captivity. He was 21 years old. He weighed 98 lbs.

Eventually, upon returning home, Valdez moved from his hometown in New Mexico to Cheyenne. He got a job with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and stayed for 30 years before retiring.

Even though he had a good job at the VA and made enough to support his family, Valdez regretted that he never finished high school.

“I saw lots of guys that I know who graduated. I said to myself, ‘How come I haven’t done that?’”

He studied and signed up to take the GED test so he could finally get his diploma. But, again, a twist of fate kept him from achieving that goal.

On the day he was to take the GED exam, his wife went into labor.

“I couldn’t miss my daughter being born,” he said. “And they told me if I missed the (GED) test I wouldn’t be able to retake it that year.”

Needless to say, Valdez’s first priority was the birth of his child. He never took the exam.

Valdez has four daughters, all of whom are Central High graduates.

His granddaughter, Carly Ortiz, got her diploma alongside Valdez on Friday.

“I’m really excited about graduation, but it’s more about my grandfather,” Ortiz said. “I know it will really make him happy.”

Ortiz deserves much of the credit for initiating the process of getting Valdez his honorary diploma.

“She told (Central High vice principal Brian Cox) the story and said, ‘Boy, it would be neat if my grandfather could get his high school diploma,’” Fred Roybal said. He is a teacher at Central High and Valdez’s son-in-law.

The administration at Central determined that “anyone who does what (Valdez) has done and tried so hard to get a diploma deserves to have one,” Roybal said. “We are so proud of him.”

Cox said as far as he knows Valdez is the first person ever to get an honorary diploma from Central.

He added, “From my position, this is the biggest honor we are able to give him. He deserves it. It just felt right. “We try to teach our students that no matter what you do when you leave high school, just focus on serving the common good. Mr. Valdez embodies that.”

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Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, http://www.wyomingnews.com

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