A True Veteran Success Story: Master Sergeant Michael Rutledge
We often hear of veterans’ struggles. The poverty, the mental health concerns, the homelessness.
Although there are many American veterans facing these substantial and systemic problems, these veterans are the unfortunate minority. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that roughly 2 out of 1,000 veterans were homeless at the start of 2020–an arguably small piece of the pie.
Don’t get me wrong, post-service problems facing veterans, especially those that have seen combat, are nothing to minimize. Ultimately, however, the vast majority of veterans have seen success during and following their service.
Sharing these stories of success is important for the public to be able to have an accurate orientation when judging the state of our veteran community in America.
Mike Rutledge is one of those success stories. Born in Detroit, Mike moved to a blue-collar Detroit suburb at the age of 12 where he was raised by his mother and stepfather.
After graduating high school, like so many of us, he just wasn’t quite ready for college. After one year of poor performance at Michigan State in 1980, which he attributes to “immaturity,” Mike dropped out.
At the time, America was being hit with the largest economic recession since the Great Depression, and there weren’t very many financial opportunities for a teenager with no skills. He realized he needed a degree, but couldn’t afford it.
Mike turned towards the military recruiting office. His family didn’t have any previous military legacy. In fact, his mother was more of a hippy than anything else. Still, short of options and just one day after talking with an Army recruiter, Mike was on a bus heading to basic training–he was going to be a field artilleryman. It was 1982.
Mike had originally joined the army in hopes that the military would pay for his college, but he quickly found that he enjoyed the lifestyle enough to reenlist after his first contract. The army had sharpened him up into a respectable man and he was ready for success.
After basic training and artillery school in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Mike spent the early years of his enlistment in central Europe. He was in Germany the night the Berlin Wall was toppled. Eighteen months later, in 1990, he was mobilized for Operation Desert Shield and then Desert Storm.
After six weeks of military action the Iraqi government was quickly subdued. After Desert Storm Mike was sent to Columbus, Ohio where he spent three years as a recruiter. Following his stint on recruitment duty, he was sent to the United States Army Field Artillery School, where he served as a gunnery instructor from 1994 to 1996.
It was during this time as an instructor that Mike decided that being an educator was what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. In 1996, he was sent to South Korea where he spent a year. During his time in Korea, he was awarded the 2nd Infantry Division Noncommissioned Officer of the Year.
To stand out among 15,000 men and women is no easy task. After his time in Korea, Mike was assigned back to Fort Sill Oklahoma, and in late 1999 he was assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas, where he remained until retiring in 2004.
In 2004, after 22 years of service, Master Sergeant Mike Rutledge hung up his uniform in pursuit of his next dream. He had already received an associate’s degree in Military History while in the service, so he went back to school at Eastern Michigan University where he completed his bachelor’s degree along with his teaching certification.
Mike was hired as a history teacher at the high school in hometown of Taylor, where he taught for a year. He was then hired at a charter school in Traverse City where he taught from 2007 to 2012. During this time, Mike completed his Master’s degree at Central Michigan University. The charter school he was working at closed in 2012 so he began teaching full time at Northwestern Michigan College as an adjunct history professor.
After two years at Northwestern as a full-time adjunct professor, Mike was offered the job as the Coordinator of Student Veteran Services at Northern Michigan University here in the Upper Peninsula. He helps veteran students navigate university life as well as ensuring that they receive the educational benefits they have earned.
That’s where Mike has been the past seven years, and now he’s got retirement on his mind. He thinks he will retire in a couple years, but might stick around for at least four. When asked about his retirement plans, Mike responded that he has a bucket list of travel spots he hasn’t been to: India, Vietnam, and Australia/New Zealand. He recently added Sicily to his list after reading a book about it.
When looking back on it, there are no regrets from Mike. Entering the military helped him transition from boyhood to a man. Although sometimes it was tough, the military gave him the toolset to be successful not only in his service, but also his career afterwards.
The military fostered in him a love of travel, which he still holds onto today. Because of his travels, Mike has friends from countries across the globe, including one of his best friends, a Grecian Brigadier General.
The benefits Mike has earned from his time in service have also been indispensable. The pension he receives through the Department of Defense has offered financial security to him while he transitioned back into civilian life. According to Mike, the educational benefits alone made his enlistment worth it, and because of the VA healthcare system, he doesn’t have to worry about how he will pay for his healthcare.
Of course, when thinking of veterans, we can’t forget the downtrodden and the destitute. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan finally drawing to a close, it is time to take care of our brothers and sisters. Veterans suffering from PTSD, depression, and homelessness desperately need our help to heal after two decades of conflict.
I do hope, however, that we are able to understand that some veterans do desperately need help, while still acknowledging that most live happy, healthy, and very successful lives. For most, the military offers young men and women both highly-valuable skill sets to take into the civilian world and a worldly perspective that only people who have served can understand.
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