Lifetimes of service

MSU ROTC members visit with veterans to honor Veterans Day

Bradford Sutherland’s blue eyes glazed over as he tried to remember a time he long since had stored away in the back of his mind.

Sighing deeply, he thought back to a place where, for him, time really never existed.

“It’s all a blur now,” he said, biting his lip and holding back tears. “It was all so cold — the cement and not knowing where my life was going.”

Katy Joe DeSantis / The State News

For Sutherland, sleeping on concrete in London bunkers during the Cuban missile crisis was an honor and a duty. Sleeping on concrete years later as a homeless veteran was an unending nightmare of mental hospitals and prodding doctors he didn’t trust.

“I was out on the streets,” he said, nodding and for a moment, drifting off to another place and time. “I was imagining all kinds of things. I thought I was losing my mind.”

But even after serving his country and putting his life on the line in the Navy, Sutherland isn’t bitter about the life he’s lived.

“Things are warm now,” he said, grinning as dozens of wrinkles, a visible marker of his 74 years, spread across his rosy face.

One thing is for sure — he’s a Spartan.

Ushered by a future solider into a room already crowded with other veterans in wheelchairs and hospital beds, Sutherland’s green baseball cap stood out in the crowd to the MSU ROTC cadets shuffling in the room amongst the veterans.

A fine arts student at MSU in the 1950s, Sutherland was eager to chat with the young cadets about the Spartan’s Rose Bowl potential.

Settling in, more than 30 veterans gathered Tuesday around a small stage in the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans.

The home has a history that dates back to the late 1800s, with more than 2,000 Civil War soldiers buried in a cemetery on the 85-acre property. Today, more than 650 people live there, all native Michiganders and former soldiers or soldier dependents.

Tuesday, soldiers of World War II, the Vietnam War, the Korean War and the Gulf War tapped their feet and clapped their hands along to the sounds of patriotic songs and stories brought to them by MSU Army ROTC in an early celebration of Veterans Day.

Dozens of American flags rested in nooks on their beds and chairs. The former soldiers’ physical sacrifices are visible. Some have lost their arms or legs and gently faded scars mark the faces of others. Age spots dot their hands — hands in which the security of the nation once was held.

But what’s less apparent are the unseen sacrifices, the ones for which the MSU Army ROTC wanted to thank them.

From one generation to another

Criminal justice senior Aaron Gillies wouldn’t know what to expect if he was called to serve overseas, but it’s a definite possibility.

Gillies, 27, announced to the veterans Tuesday that he’ll soon be a lieutenant.

With a wife and a five-month-old daughter, Gillies said the prospect of being deployed after graduation is a little scary, but he’s comforted in knowing his family will be taken care of.

“I hope that I’m around to see my daughter grow up,” he said. “I’m hopefully not going too far away. I hope to carry on a long tradition of veterans.”

Gillies, who organized the visit to Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, said although ROTC had held events at the Alumni Memorial Chapel on campus to honor veterans in the past, it wasn’t often the young cadets got time to spend talking to many veterans.

For this reason, they made the decision to seek out the veterans themselves, rather than have veterans come to them.

About 30 cadets piled into MSU ROTC vans to drive down Interstate 127 Tuesday, uniformed and excited to meet their predecessors.

“We thought it would be better this time to celebrate Veterans Day with veterans,” said Lt. Col. James Rouse,
as he pulled one of the crowded vans onto the interstate.

“For the cadets, they can appreciate the sacrifice of those that have been in wars before us and for the veterans, they can interact with the people that are going to follow them so they can feel comfortable about the future of our army.”

Rouse said his father, a Vietnam War veteran, is amazed at some of the things that have changed and things that have stayed the same.

“I talk to him about things we do that stand the test of time like discipline and uniform standards and then when I talk about the capabilities we have to analyze data and use (geographic information systems) to determine where the enemy is located, those are all things that are completely foreign to him,” Rouse said.

For criminal justice sophomore Trevor Kay, being in ROTC has meant getting up at 5:30 a.m., having an endless supply of brothers and fulfilling a lifelong dream of serving his country. To him, veterans are America.
“They’ve already sacrificed and have given things up that other people wouldn’t dream of,” he said. “We owe them all the respect in the world.”

‘Keep on keepin’ on’

“A lot of these guys here look like they’re going to make really good soldiers,” Sutherland said, looking around the room on Tuesday.

Two or three cadets gathered closely around each veteran, taking the time to listen to their stories after sharing their own.

They talked about the war and their lives after. They talked about fishing and MSU football.

“They strike me as a lot more dedicated than some of the guys I ran into,” Sutherland said.

He recalled the time he spent in London protecting high-profile bombs and electronic technology.

Air police guarded his office and there wasn’t much he was allowed to tell his wife or family about his location or job.

“That’s where it got hard,” he said.

Veterans Day is a reminder of those times, Sutherland said, but this year he was dismayed to find out he’d be spending part of it with a heart specialist.

“I hope it’s not anything serious,” he said, laughing.

“I was hoping to live to 100. I’ve really got a chance to do some things now with my art. There are a lot of ways to serve your country and there’s no sense in me stopping now.”

Sutherland, now using his love of the fine arts to sell his drawings and acrylic paintings, said he’s hoping to continue raising money for cancer patients.

“I figure I’ve got the ability, the materials to work with and I can raise a lot of money in a hurry,” he said. “I’m not done serving yet.”

He hasn’t stopped trying, he said, and that is exactly his advice to the generation that soon will fill the shoes he once did.

“You never fail until you stop trying,” he said.

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