Charm McElree grew up hearing stories about how her uncle died serving his country during World War II. When her brother served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, she prayed for his safe return.
Somehow, some way, McElree knew she would work one day to make a meaningful difference in the lives of veterans, individuals she believed never got the recognition they deserved.
McElree found her niche while working as coordinator of the Victor Valley Adult School in Victorville, California. It was there she found out about Operation Recognition, a national program that awards high school diplomas to World War II, Korean War and Vietnam-era veterans who left school early for military service.
In her last four years with Victor Valley — she retired in 2012 and moved to Boulder City two years later — she helped 11 veterans receive their diplomas.
Now 67, baby boomer McElree is continuing her mission in Nevada.
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the free diploma program is designed to honor those didn’t have a chance to graduate from high school. Veterans do not have to attain any credits.
When McElree sees men in Las Vegas wearing ball caps that reflect their military service, she’ll stop and tell them about Operation Recognition. Though they may have graduated from high school, she gives them a business card to share with friends who may not have.
She also visits nursing homes, talks to Rotary Clubs and does guest gigs on radio programs. She also communicates with veterans who’ve participated in Honor Flights of Southern Nevada, which takes veterans on escorted tours of memorials in the nation’s capital.
“I’ve found that for a veteran who didn’t get a diploma, it fills some kind of hole in their lives,” McElree said recently as she stood in the lobby of the Nevada State Veterans Home in Boulder City. “They often get very emotional.”
On this day McElree, along with 83-year-old Korean War veteran Norm Johnson, has come to visit 91-year-old George Markle. McElree helped both men get diplomas this year after meeting them in relation to Honor Flights.
The thankful veterans surprise her with roses.
“She’s just awesome,” said Markle, who served with the Army infantry in Okinawa during World War II. “She helped me finish part of my life.”
Johnson, a former Las Vegas Sun sports columnist and publicist for entertainers including Robert Goulet and Lola Falana, still writes a syndicated column called “It’s the Norm.”
“I was surprised how much it meant to me,” Johnson said. “I didn’t get my diploma because a judge told me either enlist in the military or face juvenile detention for skipping classes at San Diego High School.”
McElree is not employed by the VA, but a volunteer with Operation Recognition because she’s moved by the program.
“I’m probably like many baby boomers, who still need a purpose,” she said. “I just can’t retire completely.”
McElree helps Nevada veterans complete an application available on the website of the Nevada Department of Veteran Services. She is able to help veterans secure diplomas from out-of-state high schools. Markle has his from Bigelow, Arkansas, and Johnson from San Diego.
“We put on a graduation ceremony for George here at the veterans home, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” said Linda Gelinger, veterans home administrator. “Veterans appreciate Charm.”
Paul Harasim’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday in the Nevada section and Monday in the Health section. Contact him at email@example.com or 702-387-5273. Follow @paulharasim on Twitter.