Manuel Blunt recalls being in tears as he watched his children graduate from high school. The ceremonies were emotional because he was proud of them, but that wasn’t the only reason.
“I’ve always wanted to do that … I’ve thought about that for the past 50 years,” Blunt says. “What would that moment have been like for me?”
He’ll find out when he receives his high school diploma five decades after dropping out of Fresno High School to enlist in the U.S. Army and fight in the Vietnam War.
The 68-year-old will receive the diploma thanks to California Education Code that allows educators to award high school diplomas to veterans of certain wars without requiring them to finish school. Blunt, who now lives in Riverside, will walk in a special graduation ceremony in Moreno Valley two days after Veterans Day with four other Vietnam veterans and two from the Korean War. The Fresno native is among 344 veterans to receive one of these diplomas from the Riverside County Office of Education over the past 11 years.
For Blunt, the diploma is recognition of what he sacrificed to fight in Vietnam.
“To be recognized for my efforts after all those years and be given a diploma — it’s a godsend.”
There wasn’t any positive recognition for his service when he flew into San Francisco in 1969, returning from an 18-month deployment in Vietnam. Getting off the plane, he was met by a line of protesters who spit in his face and called him a baby killer. A military police officer in the airport told him he might want to take off his uniform and put on civilian clothes so he wouldn’t be harassed.
“I told them some choice words,” Blunt recalls, “and said, ‘You’re not taking my patriotism away from me.’ ”
Of his decision to fight in Vietnam, he says, “My country asked me to do it. What else can you do for a country that’s been good to you?”
After enduring the pain of the layover in San Francisco, he got back on a plane and flew the rest of the way to Fresno. When he arrived, he took a taxi home because no one was there to greet him. He hadn’t told his mother and grandmother he was on his way.
He dropped out of Fresno High at age 17 and joined the Army, in part, to make them proud.
“I thought it was the right thing to do, and I did it for my family — for my grandmother and my mother. You have to understand, back then, being Mexican wasn’t the most popular thing. There was a lot of discrimination. I just wanted to prove to them that we were as American as everyone else. So that’s why I went. I didn’t go because I wanted to be a hero. To be honest with you, it’s the only place I thought I could get a fair shake, and I did.”
He fought in Vietnam as a paratrooper infantryman and received a Combat Infantryman Badge for his service. It’s hard for him to talk about what happened there.
“Those things, I just don’t want to discuss. They bring back bad memories.”
When his family asks about it, he tells them to watch the movie “Platoon.”
“I don’t regret anything that I did for my country and what I had to do,” he says. “I just did my job. I did what I was asked to do, and I did it with pride. The only thing that hurt the most was when I left the country, I left my brothers behind.”
Those “brothers” were the other young American soldiers he fought beside. He left Vietnam because one of his commanding officers told him to.
“It’s time for you to go home, boy,” the officer said. “You’ve been here too long.”
“I said, ‘OK,’ ” Blunt recalls. “Not that I wanted to (leave).”
Coming back to the United States wasn’t easy.
“When I pulled into a parking lot, I didn’t see a parking lot like normal people. I saw a combat zone — Where’s my escape route? Where’s my field of fire? — things like that.”
He eventually got help, including medication to control nightmares and anxiety, and classes that addressed anger management, sleep therapy and wellness.
“I struggled for a long time. … People around me were telling me they were afraid of me because they never knew how I would react to a situation. … My wife told me, ‘We can’t live like this, on eggshells every day when you come home.’ ”
He says the most effective therapy was with horses, which he started doing in 2005. Blunt now has a horse of his own. He named the horse Honor.
“A horse knows what you’re thinking. When you approach a horse, he can sense fear. He senses it and reacts to it. If you approach a horse with love, you’ve got a friend for life. He loves you right back.
“It’s really helped … I can tell the horse my problems and everything I’ve been through and he’s not going to tell me that only happens in the movies.”
Blunt retired as a maintenance chief for state parks in Southern California. He previously worked as a trainer for the Army, and as a ranch worker, bartender, and oil company pipe fitter. Before that, he took classes at Fresno City College and Reedley College with the intention of becoming an investigative law enforcement officer.
He says he was “blown away” when he received a letter a few months ago from Riverside County Office of Education asking if he wanted a high school diploma. His first thought was of his favorite teacher at Fresno High when he was a student there.
“When I was struggling in school, she was the only one who believed in me. She sat me down and told me I could achieve anything I set my mind to, and excel in whatever I wanted to do, and that thought stayed in my head all these years. When everyone else was giving up, not her. She had me reading ‘Hamlet.’ She had me reading ‘Macbeth.’ I just liked her a lot because she believed in me — something that no one else did.”
Blunt’s wife and one of his sons will be at the graduation ceremony, along with a number of other proud educators. One of them will be Craig Petinak, a spokesman for Riverside County Office of Education.
“It’s special to me to see the gleam in their eyes as they hear their names called and they walk across the stage,” Petinak says, “and knowing the sacrifice they gave decades earlier of their time and focus for people sitting in that room decades later. There’s tears of pride and joy.”
© 2017 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)
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