- Associated Press - Saturday, July 26, 2014

MARYVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - During the 2008 Summer Olympics, then-41-year-old swimmer Dara Torres competed against others half her age, telling others, “Don’t put an age limit on your dreams.”

Jerry Freeman certainly didn’t put one on his. In June 1965, Freeman, now a Maryville resident, was just a few credits short graduating from Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Washington, where he and his family had moved in 1962. He was planning on enrolling in summer school to finish, when he entered the U.S. Army and served during the Vietnam War.

While there, Freeman served as an infantryman, serving in combat and earning the Combat Infantryman’s Badge (CIB), Air Medal and Parachutist Badge. Despite these honors, there was something missing from his accolades - a high school diploma.

Although Freeman did earn a military GED later, it was not officially recognized. Blount County Veterans Affairs Service Director Nathan Weinbaum assisted Jerry with an application to Lewis and Clark High School for his high school diploma. The Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs “Operation Recognition” honors veterans who left high school to join the military during World War II, Korea or Vietnam. Those veterans who were scheduled to graduate and left high school to serve and received an honorable discharge would be eligible to receive a diploma.

Lewis and Clark High mailed Freeman his diploma, but his son, Dean, and their family wanted it to be a surprise, so they held a surprise celebration for his father to be presented his diploma by Weinbaum in front of family and friends.

The celebration was held Saturday at USW - Local 309 Steelworkers Union Hall on South Hall Road in Alcoa. It is reportedly the second diploma this year that the Blount County Veterans Affairs office has assisted a veteran in obtaining. In February, World War II veteran Wineferd “Dude” Allison received his diploma from Maryville High School.

“It was definitely a surprise,” Freeman said during a visit to The Daily Times with his family Sunday afternoon.” It felt good all over, to have that many people come up there.”

Dean Freeman said he was talking with his family concerning how they would like to hold a party for his father.

“We couldn’t get it quite together,” he said. “This was the first opportunity we had. We spent about two weeks - myself, Jody (his brother), Jody’s wife Cheri, and Mom, we were trying to get everything together.”

Jerry Freeman, 68, was born in Rockford, and his stepfather was in the Air Force at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington.

“I went out there to go to school, and I got through my sophomore year and I had 40 days to finish, so I went with a friend down to a recruiter,” he said. “He was talking about going into the Army, and we talked for a few minutes and he said, “You know you can go into the Army and get your GED, and then turn it in get your high school diploma.” It sounded good to me, so I went and quit school, joined the Army and went on to camp, through training and went to Vietnam.”

Freeman said a GED program was not offered in Vietnam, so he went to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and received it.

“It’s supposed to be the equivalent of the high school diploma,” he said. “When I came out of Army, I was told that it would not be honored. I was at the VA’s office and saw this guy on TV where the VA helped him get his high school diploma. Nathan said, ‘I’ve never done one before, but we will try.’ That was over a year ago. The assistant principal of Lewis and Clark High School called and said we will have your diploma - it’s at the printers getting your name on it.”

Freeman’s wife, Joyce, said the first time Weinbaum tried to go and get the diploma through the Nashville VA office. The state never got back to them, and then they applied to the state of Washington directly to Lewis and Clark School, where the diploma was finally received.

Freeman also has one year of college credit under his belt through Vincennes University, North Little Rock, Arkansas. He said he lacked four credits in getting an associate’s degree, but was not interested in finishing the requirements at this time.

“I’ve retired, but they may offer (classes) online,” Freeman said. “It’s been over 10 years since I’ve had everything, and they may not honor any of it now.”

“My mother wanted me to get my high school diploma,” Freeman continued. “She passed in 1973, and I didn’t have it then. I have it now, and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

“There’s no better honor to see someone who is seeking a diploma to actually obtain it,” Winebaum said Sunday. “(Freeman) put his life on the life for our country. He always wanted that diploma. When he approached me it was something I knew I could do for him. It’s a great honor to us and to our community.”

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