Vietnam-era vet gets diploma 45 years after dropping out of Lansing Eastern High School

September 6, 2019

David Dunckel thought of himself as a high school dropout.

 

That’s in spite of a career in the military and a Bronze Star.

 

It’s in spite of earning an associate degree, and holding a state job where peers have master’s degrees.

 

And it’s in spite of winning a national award for helping a Michigan company recruit veterans.

 

“Nobody likes to be a high school dropout, and I have been one my whole life regardless of anything else I achieved,” he said.

 

 

That changed Thursday.

 

The 62-year-old Grand Ledge man, wearing his Army dress uniform, accepted his diploma from the Lansing Board of Education as a few dozen classmates, colleagues and military buddies gave him a standing ovation.

 

"I can't tell you how happy and honored I am to finally get this diploma," Dunckel said.

 

He teared up as a childhood classmate, Alice Hansens, talked about his sacrifice in joining the military instead of graduating with the Eastern High School Class of '75.

 

"Dave, you were always one of us, and today we make that official," Hansens said. 

 

It happened 45 years after he left the Quaker classroom.

 

The diploma was awarded under a 2001 state law that allows school districts to confer degrees on veterans who dropped out to join wartime efforts. It’s only the second time Lansing officials recall awarding such a diploma.

 

"I think it's fantastic when you have someone who sacrificed so much for our country," said Amy Leffel, a secondary school principal from Morrice whose husband served with Dunckel in the Michigan National Guard. "I found it very moving."

 

Military service is ingrained in the Dunckel family, dating back to the American Revolution. Dunckel said his great-great-great grandfather survived a British POW camp in Canada during the Revolutionary War.

 

Another forefather died in a Confederate prison.

 

His grandfather was in World War I. His father, Ron Dunckel, and his father’s twin brother, Don, served in World War II. His older brother, Joe, was in Vietnam when Dunckel was still in grade school.

 

“I grew up in an environment where it was just kind of expected the boys would join the service,” he said.

 

In 1974, Dunckel decided to join the Marines instead of his class for his senior year at Eastern.

 

He wanted to go to Vietnam like his older brother, and he was having teenage rebellion issues with his father, though he was close to his dad in later years.

 

“Him and I used to bang heads all the time,” he said.

 

When he showed up at the recruiting office, a Marine recruiter quickly discouraged him.

 

“I was 17. I weighed about 111 pounds. I was a teeny kid,” he said.

 

So he turned to the Navy, and, with his father’s approval, he ended up as a torpedoman on a nuclear submarine where his small stature was a bonus.

 

His stint in the Navy was too late for combat action in Vietnam: Though Saigon had not fallen, the U.S had already withdrawn its troops.

 

Dunckel spent his Navy assignment in the North Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. His time in combat would come many years later when he joined the Michigan National Guard.

 

After his two-year stint in the Navy, he returned to Lansing where he drove cabs, worked as a security guard and contemplated, then rejected, a career in journalism. He earned an associate degree from Lansing Community College.

 

In 1989, he joined the Michigan National Guard. That eventually led to a 15-month combat tour in Iraq in 2006-07, where he was assigned as an embedded adviser to the Iraqi Army.

 

His son, Dustin, who did three tours, was serving in Iraq at the same time.

 

Dunckel said he narrowly escaped death in 2007 when a roadside bomb engulfed his Humvee.

 

Shrapnel flew all around him, barely missing his head.

 

But his most difficult experience, he said, was in 2006 when he was stationed in Lansing and was dispatched to tell the parents of a Michigan soldier that their son had died in combat.

 

“It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “It was terrible.”

 

Dunckel retired in 2014 as a command sergeant major, the highest rank possible for a non-commissioned officer.

 

His work life continued.

 

He was hired by a Livonia-based automotive firm to help hire veterans. His efforts led to a national award from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Later, he went to work for the state. He now works at the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency as a departmental specialist, where he crafts policies aimed at helping vets.

 

The Michigan Civil Service Commission counts his experiences as equivalent to a bachelors degree, a requirement for his position. Others in similar jobs often hold master’s degrees.

 

Despite his impressive resume, Dunckel said the high school diploma was a missing part of his history.

 

“I never really was part of the Class of ’75, because I didn’t graduate, and now I will be,” he said. 

 

Despite his impressive resume, Dunckel said the high school diploma was a missing part of his

 

history.

“I never really was part of the Class of ’75, because I didn’t graduate, and now I will be,” he said.

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