MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Brandon Cotton began attending MTSU in 2007, studying music education and performing in the Band of Blue. Fourteen years later — after spending time in the military, mentoring high school students, marrying and becoming a father to three girls under 8 — he’s about to earn that bachelor’s degree … in integrated studies.

Cotton, 33, a Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, resident and Tennessee National Guard staff sergeant about to pursue a master’s degree in social work, was among 30 graduating student veterans attending the fall 2021 stole ceremony Wednesday, Dec. 1, in the Miller Education Center’s second-floor atrium.

The 21st stole ceremony, which was broadcast on True Blue TV, Livestream and the Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center Facebook page, celebrates the looming graduation for students who returned from serving their country to pursue college degrees. The event was sponsored by Amazon Military.

“To me, it is an honor and (a certain amount of) pride — and also humbling,” Cotton said of the completion of his undergraduate degree. “I spent so much of my time speaking to kids in high school (including three years as a recruiter). Now, to be able to practice what I preach is awesome.”

Once he achieves his master’s, Cotton’s goal is to work in mental health for the National Guard and VA. He cites a quote by Scott Lang, a motivational speaker and music educator: “If you can, you must.”

“You can never give up,” said Cotton, accompanied by wife, Rachel, at the ceremony. “Never let anything hold you back. Always push forward.”

Graduating student veterans can wear the special red stoles at the Fall 2021 Commencement ceremonies to be held Saturday, Dec. 11, in Murphy Center.

Additional wisdom

Scott Lamb, one of Amazon’s newest management members and a U.S. Navy veteran who worked in the nuclear power training unit, also brought wisdom from fellow Navy colleague Wayne Maynor’s 35 years of service: “Make a difference in someone’s life today.”

Lang, senior program manager for Amazon since Aug. 16, told the graduating veterans that “as each of you go forth to do great things, check in on our fellow veterans who need some help and guidance. Answer that text or call asking what to do next. Turn to your loved one and just say thank you for the love and support.

“And, of course, take a few minutes to celebrate you — because in uncertain times and unstable environments, our nation looks to us, its active, reserve, guard and veteran service members — to light the path forward. So, go out there and make a difference in someone’s life today.”

Praising the Daniels Center

David Corlew, representing The Charlie Daniels Journey Home Project, told the audience the foundation’s Oct. 27 Patriot Award to the Daniels Center “is probably the most deserving award we’ve given in the five or six years we’ve been doing this.” And in the 47 years he worked with Daniels, who died in July 2020, “the greatest gift he gave me is the opportunity to serve those who served our country.”

The Journey Home Project has been a major donor to the Daniels Center.

Keith M. Huber, senior adviser for veterans and leadership initiatives and a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, told the graduating veterans “to realize how precious each day is. Appreciate the day. Use your time wisely and cherish it.”

The Daniels Center, a 3,200-square-foot suite on the first floor of the Keathley University Center, serves about 1,100 veterans and family members annually, both virtually and in-person. With the largest dedicated space for student veterans on a Tennessee higher education campus, it is a one-stop-shop to meet a wide range of academic, career and social needs.

Hilary Miller, left, director of the MTSU Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center, congratulates Anthony Bond for completing the journey to graduate from the university. Bond was one of 30 graduating veterans participating in the fall 2021 stole ceremony Wednesday, Dec. 1, in the Miller Education Center second-floor atrium. The event was sponsored by Amazon Military. MTSU’s commencement will be Saturday, Dec. 11, in Murphy Center. (MTSU photo by Andy Heidt)
A red stole rests on the back of a chair before the start of the MTSU Graduating Veterans Stole Ceremony Wednesday, Dec. 1, in the Miller Education Center second-floor atrium. Graduating veterans will wear their stoles at commencement Saturday, Dec. 11, in Murphy Center. MTSU’s Daniels Veterans Center hosts stole ceremonies before the veterans graduate from the university. (MTSU photo by Andy Heidt)