Seventeen veterans graduating from Vanguard University in Costa Mesa were honored Thursday evening and presented with challenge coins, a military tradition since World War I, in which troops used coins to identify their units.
The veterans were celebrated among friends, family and faculty at the private Christian university's Veterans Courtyard of Honor.
The military coin contains a picture of the U.S. flag, a flag of the graduate's branch of service and an engraving that challenges graduates to "act justly, walk humbly and love mercy with commitment, honor and excellence." It also has the Vanguard University logo.
Graduates also were presented with a red, white and blue cord and a blue graduation stole adorned with 50 stars.
Three grads received the Chris Merkle Student Veteran Leadership Award.
Graduating senior and Marine Corps veteran Jordyn Salter delivered the keynote address.
Salter, an Irvine resident, shared how his inability to earn a scholarship to play baseball in college led him to join the Marines.
"I was that kid that had to sleep with my glove at night," Salter said. "I ate, slept and dreamt of baseball … but going to college was never an option unless I had a scholarship."
He looked to drugs and alcohol to fill the void, Salter said. He eventually enlisted in the Marines, uncertain of his career goals.
After boot camp in San Diego, Salter was deployed to Afghanistan as a field radio operator from 2010 to 2011. He described the daily uncertainty of being in a conflict-ridden area.
After his service, Salter struggled to readjust to civilian life while facing the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. He began mixing medication with alcohol and even considered suicide until he realized he was "crying out to God," he said.
Salter enrolled at Vanguard with the help of his GI Bill to study business.
He also played baseball for the university, Salter said, but walked away from the sport after suffering multiple injuries.
"At Vanguard, I was able to rediscover and find my purpose in life," Salter said. "Vanguard has given me confidence in what I want to do in this world."
Now, Salter said, he plans to obtain a real estate license and help veterans, their families and people from developing countries.