Aaron King made a promise.
His paternal grandfather lay dying. He asked King, a Marine Corps veteran, to go back to school and earn a degree.
King vowed he would with the same determination that carried him through boot camp, service in Iraq and years of recovering from combat wounds.
On Sunday, he fulfilled his pledge.
At the Bryce Jordan Center, the Bellefonte native donned his cap and gown and received his College of Education degree in rehabilitation and human services to go with an associate degree earned three years ago. Hundreds of other Penn State students graduated as the university’s spring commencement ceremonies concluded.
King just wished his grandfathers, Lyle King and Richard Simko, could have seen him.
“It’s very bittersweet for me,” King said.
But King, 32, also celebrated a major step forward in his life since he returned from Iraq in 2003 with a Purple Heart.
Still coping with neurological damage to his leg and the effects of traumatic brain injury, King wants to join a therapeutic staff aiding people with disabilities. He dreams of becoming a veterans advocate some day.
“I know I’ve overcome a lot, and I want to help people so they can overcome a lot if they set their mind to it,” he said.
Eleven years ago, early in the Iraq War, King was riding in a 7-ton truck near Kut when it came under fire and rolled into the Tigris River. Fifteen sandbags fell on him in the submerged truck.
He still suffers from that day.
His lower back contains five bulging disks. The TBI affects his speech and coordination. Post-traumatic stress disorder, general anxiety disorder and insomnia afflict him, he said.
Pants and socks rubbing against his super-sensitive left leg can be painful.
“It feels like my leg is on fire,” he said.
But he has made great strides — literally this spring, when he completed a 5K race, his first since his discharge. King ran for Team Red, White and Blue, a nonprofit veterans advocacy group.
For his church band, he’s learning to play guitar, willing his fingers to form chords.
His marriage ended this year, but he continues to grow as a father to Audrey, his 3-year-old daughter and the love of his life.
At Penn State, his confidence grew.
He survived boot camp at Parris Island, fought in the desert and eventually adjusted to civilian life as a disabled veteran.
But passing college algebra? Now that was rough.
“I had to study big time to remember to do this or do that,” King said. “Then there was statistics. That kicked my butt, but I passed that, too.”
A turning point came in a large sociology class when the professor, Sam Richards, asked him to speak about his experiences as a veteran.
“It gave me inspiration,” he said. “I saw that if I could speak in front of 750 students, I could do a lot more.”
Emboldened, King went on to speak at three local United Way events about his life and how his daughter has benefited from early intervention services.
Sometimes when his PTSD or anxiety flared during class, he left the room to calm down, returning half an hour later, he said. Sympathetic professors were understanding and filled him in.
So did classmates.
Being older never kept King from making close friends. They shared most of the classes in the small major, as well as good times that will become fond memories at future reunions.
King’s sad to say goodbye to all of them. His friends got him through tough patches, but he reserved the Nittany Lion’s share of credit to a special trio.
After all, he gave his word to his grandfathers and his daughter.
“There were times when I wanted to give up,” he said. “I remembered the first time I held Audrey. I looked into her eyes and told her I was going back to school and get a second degree and take care of her.”
He wasn’t going to let them, or his parents, or anyone else who believed in him, down.
“That kept me motivated,” King said. “I’m not one to break my promises.”