COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Local Army veteran Kenneth Kirk is part of an elite group of survivors of the Korean War known as the Chosin Few, having made it through one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

However, earning his high school diploma was one feat he hadn’t overcome until now.

“I remember going to school with cardboard in my shoes,” Kirk said.

At 91, Kirk wears his Chosin Few vest with great pride, but he recalls a time when his family struggled to put clothes on their backs.

“My father hauled coal for a living and we didn’t have much money, so I quit school in the ninth grade,” Kirk said.

In 1946, at age 16, he left school and started to work to help support his family, In 1950, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. With World War II over, his buddy asked him to join and Kirk headed to Seattle to train with the 31st Infantry.

Then the Korean War broke out.

Kirk fought in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, which is known as the bloodiest battle of the Korean War. He recalls a Marine general describing the situation.

“He made the remark that the enemy is always supposed to be in front of you,” he recalls. “In our case, there was so many of them that went through our ranks. They were on the right flank, left flank, behind us, and in front of us.”

As one of the Chosin Few, he earned a Purple Heart and a number of other medals for his bravery. But there was still one thing missing.

“Everybody always wanted to graduate,” Kirk said.

So this week, Columbus City Schools invited him along with his friends and loved ones to a unique ceremony.

Decades after leaving high school, Kirk said he felt overwhelmed to finally receive his honorary diploma.

“I never dreamed it, and I’m very excited,” he said. “It never would have entered my mind and I’m so appreciative that they’ve done this.”

Kirk currently lives in Grove City, where he writes poetry about his time at war as both therapy and reflection. This past year, he lost his beloved wife Loyla after 70 years of marriage.

“So, my loss of her is probably even worse than Korea,” he said.

But he said he knows she is looking down on him earning his diploma with great pride.

“She’s so dear to me, and we raised four children,” Kirk said. “She’s been so proud of me anyway.”

Kirk was featured in NBC 4’s Ford Oval of Honor in 2020 during the presentation of Red, White and Boom, and said he looks forward to taking part in this year’s festivities and parade in person this July.