Marine to be awarded GHS diploma 40 years after his classmates

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Robert Porter has been working on a house in Albany so a veteran with a wheelchair can use it. Next month, after more than 21 years in the Marine Corps, he’ll receive his Guilderland High School diploma.

Robert Porter says people he knows are taken aback to learn he didn’t graduate from high school.

He’s 58 and will be receiving his diploma at Guilderland High School on May 14.

“Of course, everybody’s surprised,” Porter said. “I don’t come off as uneducated … Life is going on. It never ends. You keep making it better.”

Porter is getting his degree through Operation Recognition, a state program that awards diplomas to veterans who left high school without graduating.

“We look forward to recognizing you for your service to our country and awarding you educational credit by virtue of your knowledge and experience obtained while serving in the United States Marine Corps,” Guilderland’s superintendent, Marie Wiles, wrote to Porter.

“Anybody who has served honorably in the armed services is eligible for this program. They don’t have to be alive right now,” said Porter, explaining that the man who alerted him to the program had recently helped the family of a deceased World War II veteran get his diploma posthumously.

Porter had been slated to graduate from Guilderland High School in 1984 but said, “I had problems with English. I’m dyslexic,” he said. “Back then, there were no computers or autocorrect. I sat through 12 years of school and never graduated.”

At 18, he was working a warehouse job and tried to attend adult-education classes to finish his high school requirements but was told he’d lose his job if he didn’t work overtime. He had a series of “menial, low-end jobs with no future”: pizza delivery man, lumberjack, landscaper.

When a Marine recruiter called in 1986, his future opened before him. Porter served in the Marines for 21 years. He chose to serve overseas, Porter said, because he “wanted to see the world.”

He worked primarily in law enforcement and as an investigator, Porter said. He was stationed abroad in Korea; Okinawa, Japan; the Philippines; and did a tour in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, training Iraqi police in Rawa.

“I was there for the surge,” Porter told The Enterprise this week.

In a 2020 Enterprise podcast, he said, “Under Sadam Hussein, they were basically thugs.” He remembered being “put on high alert” when Hussein was found and executed in December 2006. He also remembered standing on the roof of the police station in Rawa after an explosion and being able to see the nearby Euphrates River for the first time — the three-story building that had blocked the view was rubble.

Porter says the Marines taught him about honor, courage, and commitment.

Just recently, he was featured in Urban Valor, a podcast about veterans. A recruit whom Porter had trained in 1999 when he was a drill instructor heard the podcast and got in touch with Porter.

“He said, because of me, he served 20 years and retired as a major,” said Porter. “I said, ‘I’m not a high school graduate. I’m not that smart. You exceeded what I did.’”

Porter has been working for a number of years on upgrading a house in Albany that will accommodate a wheelchair in hopes of providing a good home for a veteran. The pandemic got in the way, he said this week, so the project is just half-finished.

Because he has friends in wheelchairs, Porter said, he is keenly aware of how so-called “handicapped compliant” homes often aren’t. He gave the example of a landlord taking vanity doors off so a person’s knees could fit under a bathroom sink but, really, the chair won’t roll that far because the wheels get stopped by the molding at the bottom.

Porter himself suffers from disabilities that are not visible — scoliosis, osteoporosis, arthritis, hypertension, and tinnitus among them.

“The corps now is putting silencers in weapons,” Porter said, referencing the ringing in his ears. “There were times we didn’t even have ear plugs.”

Still, he says that joining the Marines is “one of the best things I ever did in my life.”

Despite his disabilities, Porter is very active. He recently marched in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade as “Gunny Claus,” wearing a kilt made of the Marines’ Leatherneck tartan.

It is an outfit he generally dons at Christmastime — a scarlet uniform with brass buttons and a chestful of medals to become “Gunny Claus,” helping with the Marines’ Toys for Tots program. 

What will Porter do with his diploma once he receives it during a ceremony at the Guilderland High School auditorium on May 14?

“I have an ‘I Love Me’ book with all my military accomplishments,” said Porter. “It’s going in there.”

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