Operation Recognition Program Honors Veterans

The Vietnam War had nearly 1.7 million American draftees enlisted, and 20 percent who served did not finish high school. [MJ2]For some veterans, putting a halt on their education was one of the many sacrifices they had to endure in order to serve their country in the armed forces.

To ensure that these individuals had a chance to receive their high school diploma, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs established the Operation Recognition program. The program honors veterans and internees, who were unable to complete high school due to military service or internment, the opportunity to receive a high school diploma, according to state education code. Veterans who served in and received an honorable discharge from World War II, the Korean War or the Vietnam War; or individuals who were interned in a Japanese American relocation camp are eligible to apply to the program.

In partnership with the San Bernardino County Department of Veterans Affairs, San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools participates in the Operation Recognition Veterans Diploma Project by recognizing and awarding high school diplomas to eligible veterans and internees. The class of 2020 honors four veterans: Captain Joseph Christopher McConnell Jr., Captain Thomas Richard Owens, Sergeant Phillip Gerald Carper and Sergeant Jesse Bernal Lopez. 

Image of Captain Joseph McConnell, Jr.Captain Joseph Christopher McConnell Jr.

Captain Joseph Christopher McConnell Jr. began his service in 1940. Captain McConnell Jr. left Dover High School in New Hampshire as a junior to enlist in the Air Force. He served in World War II and the Korean War. Over a span of 14 years, McConnell Jr. became a national hero and historical figure. He flew F-86 Sabres in the Korean War and shot down 16 enemy MiG-15 fighter jets between January and May of 1953. McConnell was the first American triple jet-on-jet fighter ace and the top scoring Ace of the Korean War.

This extraordinary skill and courage earned McConnell Jr. the Distinguished Service Cross– America’s second-highest decoration for valor. The honor was presented to him by President Dwight Eisenhower. In the summer of 1953, McConnell Jr. returned to Apple Valley, Calif. to a brand new home, the Appreciation House, built and donated by the residents of the city. McConnell Jr. died the following year in a flight test accident. Patricia McConnell believed her father still deserved his high school diploma, stating, “I feel this would be an honor to my father—a top Jet Ace of America.” 


Image of Captain Thomas OwensCaptain Thomas Richard Owens

Not a fan of flying, Captain Thomas Richard Owens began his service in the Marine Corps in 1965. Owens was serious about serving his country. A senior at Santiago High School in Garden Grove, Calif., Owens left for Vietnam right before his high school graduation. He would later earn his General Educational Diploma in 1966. He continued his service for five years before transferring to the Army where he served an additional 27 years in the Military Intelligence branch. 

Captain Owens shared that he was awarded a Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal and a Good Conduct Medal. Owens retired from the Marine Corps in 2008. In the years following his retirement, he reflected on the absence of his high school diploma– viewing education as being the one thing he started but never finished. “Education is one of the best things you can do for yourself. It is the basis of what all else flows from,” says Owens. 


image of sergeant carperSergeant Phillip Gerald Carper

Sergeant Phillip Gerald Carper was a sophomore at Redlands High School when he joined the Army at the beginning of the Vietnam War. Stationed in North Korea, Carper served two years, nine months and 11 days fighting alongside his fellow soldiers. From 1959 to 1962, Carper became an expert rifleman, 106 gunner, sharpshooter and then transitioned to a paratrooper where he served in the 82nd Airborne Division. Carper returned home in the fall of 1962 and earned his GED. He has lived a happy and productive life alongside his wife and three children.




photo of sergeant lopezSergeant Jesse Bernal Lopez

Like his fellow honorees, Sergeant Jesse Bernal Lopez was ready to serve his country at a young age. In the winter of 1966, Lopez left Colton High School and joined the United States Army. He was determined to do the right thing and be a better person. His military career included serving in the Transportation Corps where he moved supplies, troops and equipment to help support combat teams on the frontlines during the Vietnam War. His position allowed him to experience the world outside of California, the United States and overseas. After serving three years, Lopez was honorably discharged, and shared that he  has lived “a life of purpose” in the High Desert.



We salute these veterans for their sacrifice and commitment to serve in the armed forces during intense periods of war and conflict. We extend our congratulations as they are awarded their long-awaited high school diplomas. It is a well-deserved honor, and we are thankful for the opportunity to celebrate their accomplishments.