PORTAGE, Mich. (AP) — On his 17th birthday, Dec. 1, 1960, Robert El Henicky decided to drop out of high school and start a new adventure in military service.
El Henicky, now 75, received permission from his parents to drop out and join the Air Force before turning 18. The original plan was to go to the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for enlisted Basic Military Training with two of his best friends from high school.
However, their parents didn’t sign the permission slip needed for underage applicants, he said.
“(My parents) asked, ‘What if we don’t sign?’” El Henicky told MLive.com , jokingly. “I paused, being a thoughtful 17-year-old, and said, ‘I bet I can make you wish you had.’ They said, ‘Give us the papers.’”
His high school recruiters threw him a going-away party the next month. Some of his classmates were sad about losing their former junior class secretary, while others were excited for El Henicky as he embarked on his new path.
But everyone was surprised by his decision, he said, as he was a good student in high school.
Despite earning hundreds of credits through military education programs in the years that followed, friends and family jokingly referred to El Henicky as a “high school dropout.”
"My buddies used to tell me that I needed a special ticket to attend the (high school) reunion," he said.
Later, a friend contacted his former school, Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Illinois, to tell them El Henicky's story. The school ultimately decided to award the veteran an honorary diploma.
El Henicky went back to Illinois to do a presentation at his former high school. He was surprised with the diploma presented by Principal Jennifer Tyrrell.
"We are always proud to hear stories of Sandburg students who experience success in life and your story is inspiring," Tyrrell said in a statement paired with the presentation of the honorary diploma. "We are proud to call you an alumnus and we will always consider you a Sandberg Eagle."
Now, El Henicky said, he won't have any trouble getting into the reunion.
Four months after completing basic training, El Henicky was shipped to England and stationed in a town just outside of Cambridge.
The airman decided that one day, he wanted to become an officer. As someone who worked in the payment division at his station, El Henicky recognized the perks that officers had, including a larger paycheck.
He soon realized that he would not go as far as he would like to if the highest education he had was his eighth-grade diploma. He finished his GED in Cambridge but did not feel like that was enough.
El Henicky enrolled at the nearby University of Cambridge and started taking classes in international relations. He received educational achievement awards in 1963 and 1964, which he credits as the jump-start of what would become his long military career.
He quickly became acclimated to life in both the Air Force and college, and worked to become someone that those above him could trust. His covert intelligence operations warranted three drug arrests during his first four years in the Air Force, El Henicky said.
"It was the same time that the first James Bond movie came out," he said. "It was easy to fantasize - here's my off-brand James Bond. I'm Jimmy Bond."
After fulfilling his commitment in the Air Force, he returned to the United States and joined the Army as a first lieutenant.
Over his 40-year service career, he earned credits from Northwestern, Western Michigan University and the University of Maryland. The "hodge-podge" of credits he had accumulated during those years eventually turned into master's degrees in management and social work.
El Henicky, who now lives in Portage, retired from military service in 2000. It was the year his granddaughter, Elsa, was born.
The veteran's "retirement project" is owning and managing Patriot Pointe, which consists of 20 veteran-friendly apartments in Portage.
He also offers registered counseling and social work services to veterans. El Henicky previously worked as a counselor and director of the Employee Assistance Center for the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command in Warren. With years of military social work experience in medical divisions, he said, he thought this was a perfect way to give back.