Photo by Max Smith/ Sidelines Archives
Story by Steve Barnum and Emily Neal/ Staff Writers
MTSU is home to about 1,000 men and women who have served in the United States Armed Forces during their lives, according to MTSU’s Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center. Below, are the stories from two of MTSU’s student veterans.
At 19, MTSU junior Colton Gray, a man with a military haircut, chocolate brown eyes and a big smile, was deployed to Afghanistan where he spent 22 months. The Port Charlotte, Florida native joined the Army at 17 to be able to attend school, as well as gain the experience.
“I just wanted a way to pay for school and also I always respected that side of things. I was old enough to remember 9/11. I was in the second or third grade so I still remembered it pretty well, so that had always been prominent in my mind, and I always wanted to try that,” he said. “I kind of want to do everything that I can in the short time that I have.”
Gray was on active duty with the Army for six years before coming to MTSU. Some of his best memories, he said, came from the bad times.
“In the military, as much as everyone complains about it when you’re actually in and how much we all ‘hated it’ we still enjoyed it, and I think the best memories I have now are the worst times we had,” he said. “It was a fun time because we suffer together.”
Through hard times, Gray and his brothers in arms relied on each other to get through it.
“You have no choice. You suffer together. I don’t think anyone that does it does it for themselves. Initially, they do it for their family and stuff, but they do it for the people next to them, too. That’s what does it,” he said. “Especially when stuff happens, you don’t think about yourself. You think about the guy whose wife just had a kid a week ago and now you’re fighting for each other at that moment. In the moment, you do it for each other. You start off doing it for your country, but when you’re there you do it for each other because if you fail to do your job, you’re putting their life on the line.”
Gray, now an aerospace major, served as an air traffic controller in the Army.
“That was the closest thing I could actually do to being a pilot without actually being a pilot,” he said.
He said he wanted to be a pilot for as long as he can remember.
“If I didn’t have that I don’t know what I would do. I would probably just be homeless,” he said. “That’s the only thing I’ve ever done that truly just fascinates me.”
When Gray was younger, he had family in Florida and in Indiana, so he did a lot of flying back and forth by himself.
“Your parents drop you off and they’re all upset and I’m like it’s fine, get out of here, I’m flying on a plane,” he laughed.
When Colton’s time in the Army was up, he came to Tennessee in search of an aerospace program.
“I kind of just spun a map and said, ‘Where’s aerospace in the country,’ and I was like, ‘Tennessee sounds cool,’ and I’m so happy I did that. You know when you go somewhere and it feels like it’s home; Florida wasn’t home, where I was stationed wasn’t home. This is it for me,” Gray said.
As far as his time at MTSU goes, Gray said he feels grateful because of his experience serving.
“I took things for granted and I didn’t seize the moment,” he said.
When Gray came to MTSU, he said he wanted to do everything. He joined SGA, a fraternity and several committees on campus.
“I wanted to milk this place dry for everything it has to offer, and there is so much here that it has to offer for everybody and not just veterans,” he said.
Before he came to MTSU, Gray said he had not realized that he was not fully content with life.
“It just feels like family. I am actually genuinely happy here,” he said. “Really the people just become like family. The professors, especially in the aerospace department, are all like family. The people make it what it is. The quality of the people that are here is just unbeatable.”
Ashley Bruno, a junior at MTSU, is a Second-Class Petty Officer in the United States Navy and is coming up on her third year enlisted on Jan. 8, 2017.
She comes from a family full of military members, all of whom are from different military branches. By the time she graduated high school, she was one of the only family members left who was not in the military. Bruno said that she was always interested in nursing, but what pushed her into the field was when her mother became seriously ill. She then enrolled in the nursing program at MTSU.
At the time, she was not accepted into MTSU’s nursing program. That, along with being in a bad relationship prompted her to join the military spontaneously. She decided she wanted to do something more with her life.
“The first branch I was considering was the Marines. I was talking to the recruiter’s office in Murfreesboro, by Golds Gym. I’m a bodybuilder, so I’m bigger muscle-wise, stronger muscle-wise and mentally stronger. One of the recruiters asked me how I felt about females being on the frontlines because at the time things were changing. I told him that I would be okay with it. There would be obstacles that you’d have to pass, but I’d be ok with it. He told me that he wasn’t. He pretty much told me that I wasn’t strong enough to pull him back from enemy lines in case things got heated. I asked him how much he weighed. He told me 180. I said, ‘you know I can squat double your size?’ and I walked out.”
That interaction did not discourage Bruno from joining the military. Instead, she kept moving forward and decided to consider joining the Navy.
“I decided that I wanted to be a Corpsman in the Navy just because my major was nursing. So, I felt like it would have helped me out a lot in getting into the nursing program [at MTSU], but as a reservist, Corpsman wasn’t available.”
Bruno told the recruiters to just give her whatever job was available. One job found undermanned was as an Electricians Mate. Bruno decided to take this position, as it seemed to be the fastest way to obtain rank in the shortest amount of time.
She went into Boot Camp as an E-3 or Seaman, and from there she shined above her peers after being told by certain individuals that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with the male Navy members.
“I was the RCPO, which is the Recruit Chief Petty Officer that is pretty much the leader of the division. I was head of like 84 Sailors. And I got honor graduate, so I got awards during graduation on top of being RCPO.”
She said that she has a strong personality and makes it clear that no one should ever look down on her just because she is a woman. However, she said that none of her Navy members ever talked down to her for being a female in the military.
In 2015, she finished all of her schooling through the Navy to become an Electricians Mate, where she got top graduate and honor graduate. She was recommended to get a promotion straight after training. Even though she was supposed to wait a year, she was advanced to E-4, Petty Officer Third Class, in July 2015.
When asked what one of her greatest achievements was, Bruno said that her greatest achievement in life is her 15-month-old son, Grayson.
After she graduated from all of her training in the Navy and recovered from her pregnancy with Grayson, Bruno reapplied for the nursing program at MTSU. Even after being trained in first aid and equipped with her new military experiences, her application was denied once again. After that, Bruno changed her major to radiation therapy.
Bruno has not deployed yet and when asked about it, she said, “Since I am a single mother they told me that I am not eligible for deployment until I either got married or have my family move closer so that they can watch [Grayson].”
Despite all of her accomplishments, Ashley Bruno is left with just one regret.
“If I could go back and do it again, I would have stuck with the Marines and shoved it in their face.”