Christopher Ferguson , Jacob Dalton, and Thomas Pencis after graduating from Marine Corps basic training. Photo from Tom Pencis’ Facebook.

Three Marines who graduated boot camp in April were looking forward to representing their recent accomplishment at their Colorado High School graduation later this month. That was until they were told by school officials that they would not be allowed to wear their dress blues unless it was covered by a cap and gown.

Thomas Pencis, Jacob Dalton, and Christopher Ferguson went to summer school in order to finish their credits early and attend Marine Corps boot camp before graduating from Centennial High School. 

Their school is in Pueblo, Colorado also known as the “Home of Heroes” because it was home to four Medal of Honor recipients: one from World War II, two from the Korean War, and another from the Vietnam War. Four large bronze statues depicting the MOH recipients sit in front of the Pueblo Convention Center, which is also home to active duty troops and veterans.

In a statement to Task & Purpose, the Marine Corps said it was “aware of the sentiments expressed by Marines from 8th Marine Corps District who recently graduated high school. We value our relationships with our local high schools and will continue to respect the policies and procedures of all establishments and institutions within our communities and are appreciative of their ongoing support.”

The three young marines were instructed by leadership not to discuss the issue so Task & Purpose spoke with Thomas’ father, Tom Pencis.

When the three friends discussed finishing early with the school, the principal and counselors told the three young men they could walk in their uniform, and “they thought that would be a great idea,” Pencis said. But the new principal said otherwise.

“[Thomas] doesn’t even want to attend graduation now and that really breaks my heart,” Pencis told Task & Purpose. “He believes he’s a United States Marine, he earned that uniform. He just has strong beliefs that he shouldn’t have to cover it up, period. It’s that simple.”

The story was first reported by a Pueblo television station, KRDO on Tuesday. On Thursday, the three students met with school officials, including a mediator, to find a compromise, Pencis said. The details are still being worked out but in general, the school decided to honor the three Marines at graduation after the presentation of the colors, while wearing their dress blues. Then the students would change into their gowns and pick up their diplomas. 

The Pueblo School District 60 said in a statement to Task & Purpose that they had “a very productive meeting with the three Marine scholars earlier today.” 

“These students will be honored during the portion of the graduation ceremony dedicated to military service. The students will participate in full uniform for this segment of the commencement exercise and, in addition, will receive their high school diploma in full academic regalia. It is important that our scholars are valued, recognized and honored for both their military service and academic achievement,” the district said in their statement. 

Pencis said he believes the other two students will accept the compromise but his son remains adamant about his decision. 

“My son’s stance is he doesn’t even want to go now. He doesn’t want nothing to do with them and I understand why and I have his back 100%,” Pencis said. “You don’t dishonor this country and the uniform and that’s what they’re doing.”

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Thomas had set his heart on the Marine Corps as a way to pay for college and because he views the other branches like his father as “too woke.” Thomas didn’t go to his high school prom because he returned from boot camp that day. He also gave up playing basketball “because he was worried he would get hurt and he wouldn’t be able to go to boot camp,” Pencis said.

Pencis described his son as an old soul with extreme dedication to his country. They lost Thomas’ mother to cancer almost four years ago so Pencis noted that being just the two of them, his son takes after his hard work ethic. Pencis is also a veteran.

Penics added that his son Thomas was the “catalyst” to get the other two, Jacob and Christopher, to join the Marine Corps. Jacob had transferred into that high school last year and Thomas influenced him to go to summer school to catch up on credits and join the Marines together. For Christopher, he had his eyes set on the Army as a ROTC cadet.

“My son convinced him, you don’t want to join the Army. Better join the Marines because that’s the best of the best,” Pencis said. “He convinced them to and he’s so happy he did.”

The issue isn’t new

This isn’t the first time that students finishing high school joined branches of the U.S. military and fought for their ability to wear their uniforms to show their pride at graduation.

The issue led New Hampshire lawmakers to pass a law making sure local Marines didn’t face the same issue. In 2016, then-Gov. Maggie Hassan, now a Senator for New Hampshire, signed “Brandon’s Law” which enshrined the right for Marines to wear their service uniforms to graduation into law.

The law was named after Lance Cpl. Brandon Garabrant, whose high school mandated he wear his Marine uniform under a cap and gown at graduation in 2013. At the time, Garabrant had just completed boot camp at Marine Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina. He was killed the following year in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

In Florida, Gov. Ron Desantis passed a similar law in 2019 after a high school senior serving as an Army Reservist was denied a request to wear her uniform to graduation. 

“If it was one Marine, I could see – cover them up. But this is three,” Pencis said. “That’s what drives me crazy, they should let them all three do it.”

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