Mac hosts belated graduation for veterans

Retired armed-forces members, former AISD students honored with diplomas in life-changing ceremony

Veterans+William+Nealy+and+Ricky+Sauls+are+celebrated+after+a+Veterans+Day+graduation+ceremony.

Lilian Gray

Veterans William Nealy and Ricky Sauls are celebrated after a Veteran’s Day graduation ceremony.

By Ingrid Smith, McCallum High School

AISD held a belated diploma ceremony for war veterans in the McCallum Arts Center theater on Nov. 11. Beginning in 2002, the district has held special veterans’ graduation ceremonies annually as part of its Veterans Day observance. This year, veterans and former AISD students Sgt. William Nealy and Lance Cpl. Ricky Sauls flipped their graduation cap tassels. 

It’s an honor to be able to celebrate our veterans in this way.”

— Principal Nicole Griffith

The veterans took the stage as the McCallum Orchestra played “Pomp and Circumstance.” The Akins High School Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps performed a presentation of colors and the McCallum Special Vocal Ensemble sang the “Star Spangled Banner.” Hand over heart, McCallum senior Catalina Flores led the audience through the Pledge of Allegiance. After a welcome by McCallum Principal Nicole Griffith, Board of Trustees President Geronimo Rodriguez stepped up to the microphone to offer congratulatory remarks. A performance by the McCallum Saxophone Quartet built anticipation for the decades-awaited moment. Smiles on full display, the veterans were handed diplomas by leadership from their former high schools and shook hands with Interim Superintendent Dr. Anthony Mays. 

For Griffith, hosting the graduation ceremony at McCallum was an honor.

“I think it’s an honor to be able to celebrate our veterans in this way, the sacrifice that they gave of their time when they were youth, and to be a part of giving back to them, to have the honor of being in high school graduate,” Griffith said. 

Nealy attended Lanier (now Navarro Early College) High School before leaving to serve in the U.S. Army and the Texas Army National Guard during the War in Afghanistan. Nealy served for 15 years and was medically retired on Nov. 6, 2018. Nealy said that receiving his diploma was an amazing feeling.

It’s amazing and very emotional to be able to have this accomplishment right now.”

— Sgt. William Nealy

“Just being able to come back to get my diploma after over 20-something years, it’s amazing and very emotional to be able to have this accomplishment right now,” Nealy said. “I just thank everybody that hosted it and put it on for us on Veterans Day.”

Nealy spent what would have been his high school years training in rural Missouri, then went back on active duty after 9/11. Nealy went on two tours and served in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. He said that internally, receiving the diploma is life-changing. 

“I retired in 2018, but just having it was an achievement to me,” Nealy said. “It’ll make a world of difference emotionally and mentally for me.”

Sauls joined the Marine Corps halfway through his senior year at Austin High School. He volunteered out of a desire to serve his country as his father did in World War II and as his uncle did in Vietnam. Sauls served from 1973 to 1978 and was generally discharged under honorable conditions. He was first stationed at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., then was ordered to spend a year overseas in Okinawa, Japan, with the Marine Aircraft Wing. Sauls returned to the States and completed his service in the Arizona desert. For Sauls, receiving a diploma was never possible until now.

“The years when I got out, I went to school to try to get my high school diploma at Austin Community College,” Sauls said. “But each time, something would happen in the family, like my mother had Alzheimer’s. I had to stop and take care of my mom until she passed. She’s been gone several years. And then I went back again to try at ACC and when I started going at night, my dad had dementia. I’m taking care of him now.”

I still can’t believe this is real. I can’t believe this is true.”

— Lance Cpl. Ricky Sauls

Sauls said that being a Marine taught him discipline. It also gave him the opportunity to travel the world, learn languages and experience a new kind of freedom. In the end, Sauls feels that the life path he chose took him exactly where he was supposed to be. 

“I think it was all in God’s plan,” Sauls said. 

When he held his diploma for the first time this Veterans Day, it felt like everything had come full circle.

“I still can’t believe this is real. I can’t believe this is true. I’ve been wondering, praying and wishing to get this done.”

This story was originally published on The Shield Online on November 11, 2022.