Army Sgt. George H. Schaefer Jr. was a senior in high school when he dropped out, unwilling to wait until graduation to join the military and serve the country in the Vietnam War.
Schaefer had no regrets about leaving behind his classmates at Overbrook High School in Pine Hill, Camden County, in January 1969. At a time when the country was bitterly divided on the war and many were burning their draft cards, he volunteered to enlist in the Army, over the objections of his parents, who wanted him to first get his diploma.
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“I just felt obligated to serve my country,” Schaefer, 67, who lives in Pine Hill, said in an interview Thursday. “I always wanted to be a soldier.”
After basic training at Fort Dix, Schaefer, then 17, was sent to Fort Lewis in Washington and then shipped out to Vietnam. He was part of the legendary “first in, last out” 25th Infantry Division of ground troops deployed on some of the toughest assignments.
Schaefer and 115 other soldiers were sent to Tây Ninh province of Vietnam atop Nui Ba Den, the Black Virgin Mountain, where they lived in bunkers and faced intense fighting. He described the experience as “horrific.” An 18-year-old soldier begging for his mother died in his arms.
“It was horrible. It was war,” Schaefer said. "It was very scary.”
Back home, his class graduated without him in June 1969 as the war continued. In all, more than 58,000 Americans would be killed. Schaefer earned a GED while in the service but always had a nagging desire to receive a diploma from what should have been his alma mater.
In the year that marks the 50th anniversary of his graduation, Schaefer will march with the Class of 2019 onto the football field Monday night to finally receive a high school diploma. He plans to address the 170 graduates, sharing his story and thanking them for allowing him to participate in their commencement.
“This is fulfillment. This completes a part of my life that I didn’t have,” Schaefer said. "You will never know how proud I am to be part of the Class of 2019.”
It is the first time that the South Jersey school district, which enrolls about 1,870 students in pre-K through 12th grade, has awarded a diploma under such circumstances, said principal Adam Lee. He wants more service members who missed their graduation to seek their diplomas.
“I think he deserves to be recognized,” said Lee, who was born three years after Schaefer’s class graduated. “To be able to do anything for our veterans is super exciting.”
There are about 340,000 veterans in New Jersey, including about 100,000 from the state who served in Vietnam, statistics show. Nationwide, there are about 20.8 million veterans.
An admitted procrastinator, Schaefer finally decided in December to pursue his “bucket list” quest. He had hoped his class would have a 50th reunion, but many have died and that hasn’t happened. So, he made an appeal in a handwritten letter addressed to the president of this year’s Overbrook senior class.
“I am asking you and the Class of 2019 if you will allow me to fulfill my dream and finally graduate,” Schaefer wrote. “It would be an honor.”
The seniors, who come from Pine Hill, Berlin Township, and Clementon, welcomed adding Schaefer to their processional, said class adviser Jennifer Kohri. Schaefer will receive the first diploma handed out. Commencement will be held on the grounds of a new building. Schaefer’s Class of 1969 was the last to graduate from the school he attended, which is now a middle school.
Class president Maurice Wade met Schaefer at graduation practice Friday and was impressed. Schaefer’s presence will enhance Monday’s ceremony, he said.
“I felt like it was a great honor having him,” said Wade, 18, of Pine Hill, who plans to attend Howard University as a biology major. “He’s a great person, very genuine.”
Schaefer, the third of 10 children, was born on Christmas Day 1951 in Camden. The family moved to Clementon when he was 10. His father, George Sr., owned a gas station in Cherry Hill, and his mother, Theresa, raised the family.
His brother Mark joined the Marines four months earlier, but when George wanted to drop out and enlist, too, his parents objected. Education was important to the couple and they wanted him to finish school.
When George persisted, the couple reluctantly surrendered and agreed to sign his enlistment papers. The couple believed a knee injury would ultimately keep George out of the military. They were wrong.
“I went up and I passed the physical,” Schaefer said. “Away I went.”
Schaefer said serving in Vietnam was tougher than he expected. Young and idealistic, he believed that nothing bad could happen to him. He saw men he called brother die around him. Others were wounded or suffered trauma like Schaefer that left permanent mental and emotional scars.
“You don’t realize how devastating war really is,” Schaefer said. His fellow soldiers were disturbed by news accounts back home that many Americans were opposed to the war, and realized that “the only support we had was each other,” he said.
Despite that, Schaefer signed up for a second tour of duty in Vietnam. Two younger brothers, Matthew and Christopher, also enlisted in the military years later. About 2.8 million Americans served in Vietnam.
Schaefer said he was disappointed by the treatment Vietnam veterans received when they came home. They were widely scorned and blamed for the increasingly unpopular war.
“How can you go to war and soldiers die in your arms and you come home and everyone is against you?” Schaefer said. “It was absolutely terrible.”
Schaefer was honorably discharged on Nov. 5, 1971. He returned to South Jersey and worked as a mechanic at his father’s gas station and later a car dealership. He reconnected with his childhood sweetheart, Marianne, a medical assistant. They had met when she was 11 and he was 14.
After dating for several months, the couple married. They never had children.
In 2006, George underwent a liver transplant at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. Schaefer and 40 percent of his unit contracted hepatitis C in Vietnam after drinking contaminated water. Years later, the disease damaged his liver and left him 100 percent disabled.
Schaefer said Marianne, his wife of 47 years, got him through the surgeries and tough times. She pushed him to write to Overbrook to request his diploma.
During a visit to the school Thursday, Schaefer tried on his cap and gown in the school colors — navy blue and burnt orange. He brought mementos from the military — his helmet, scribbled with messages, as well as medals and Vietnamese currency.
”I think now I’ll always be a member of this school,” Schaefer said.
The state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs helped Schaefer obtain his diploma through the “Operation Recognition” program. New Jersey awarded Schaefer the Distinguished Service Medal, the state’s highest military award. He also received a Vietnam Service Medal.
Schaefer hopes the idea catches on around the country and more Vietnam veterans will get their diplomas and recognition for their service. About 20 percent of those who served in Vietnam did not have a high school education when they enlisted.
He said his two-year stint in the Army “made him a better person.”
“I try to do the right thing,” Schaefer said. “I just try to be a better human being.”