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When he was a kid, student veteran Jonny Bruce thought Veterans Day was just a cool day off from school.

Jonny Bruce at a memorial service on the USS Arizona in 2013.

After spending more than 26 years as a Navy SEAL before enrolling at UT in January 2017, he’s come to realize that it’s much more than that.

He knows it’s a day to express gratitude to other veterans who have served as well as his buddies who are still serving. It’s also a day that causes him to reflect on how his own military service taught him about the world and helped make him the person he is today.

Bruce, a 48-year-old senior majoring in history and minoring in political science, grew up in a military family on a century farm near Mount Juliet in Wilson County, Tennessee. His mother and father were both teachers.

“Both of my grandfathers served during World War II, one in the Navy and the other in the Army. My Dad was a Marine in early ’70s,” he said. His uncle, a cousin, and one of his three brothers have also served in Navy. Another brother was in the Air Force and remains active in the Air Force Reserves.

A couple of months after Bruce graduated from high school in 1989, he enlisted in the US Navy.

While on active duty, Bruce was deployed to US interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Colombia, as well as three tours of duty to Iraq and two to Afghanistan.

“I was your typical young Tennessee kid who grew up on a dirt road,” he said. Being in the military made him more self-assured: “It gave me confidence to succeed at whatever I put my mind to. I’m not afraid to try.”

Even more importantly, he said, “my travels opened my eyes to other cultures and gave me an appreciation for other cultures and my own culture.”

Bruce remembers a day in 2010, when he was in Iraq and had just returned from a mission. He was settling down to eat breakfast when a story caught his eye in Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper.

Datelined Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the story told about hundreds of people marching inprotest after Rutherford County officials approved plans for a mosque.

He was stunned.

“The most valuable people we had on our team were Muslim Americans,” he said. “They risked their lives the most. And here my own hometown boys didn’t want these people to have their house of worship.”

Around the same time, Bruce was shaken by another experience in Iraq.

He and his fellow SEALs were on a mission to capture a man who was manufacturing improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. They took the man into custody, and as they were preparing to take him away in a helicopter Bruce scanned the area to make sure he had all his people.

 He noticed the prisoner’s family—a wife holding a baby and two other young children— huddled together.

“As I left, I looked at that family and they all started crying,” he said, adding that he found himself wondering how the father’s capture would impact them—whether it would push them to advocate for peace or war.

Bruce retired in May 2016 and arrived on the UT campus in January 2017. He’s on track to complete his bachelor’s degree in December 2019. Then he’ll pursue his teaching license.

“I’ve always been a big history geek,” he said. “History lets you know where your country came from and why it is the way it is.”

Jonny Bruce
Jonny Bruce

Bruce said his experience as a student veteran has been good; he’s found support and camaraderie. He serves as the social chair of the Vol Fighters, a student veteran organization. He visits the Veterans Resource Center in Hodges Library almost daily to eat lunch, read, and socialize with other student veterans.

There are 906 veterans, military spouses, and dependents who currently attend UT using veterans benefits. UT is ranked 64th among public schools in the U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges for Veterans list and received a Purple Heart designation in 2014 in recognition of its commitment to veterans and the military.

CONTACT:

Amy Blakely (ablakely@utk.edu, 865-974-5034)