Not many military veterans can claim nearly four decades of service to their country.
Even fewer can say they survived 9/11, 39 years of service to their nation with four combat tours, prostate cancer and retired from the federal government.
SGM (RET.) Clifford Eugene Lovejoy proudly lays claim to all of these.
"Jesus said, ‘In the six fruits of the spirit, you need love and joy in your life,’ and I'm lucky to have both in my name," he says.
Born to Serve
The 63-year-old hails from Des Moines, Iowa where he spent all of his childhood. He explains what inspired him to become a member of the U.S. armed forces from an early age.
"Growing up, I didn't have a father in my household," he says. "When I was in sixth grade, a special forces recruiter came to my school. He looked just like my GI Joe whose name was sergeant major. He talked about heroes who have the unique responsibility for saving the world on behalf of the United States of America. He said if u want to be a hero on his team, then come and join the military. I wanted to be a hero, not just a regular guy. I can say I lived the dream and quenched my thirst by serving in the military."
His service in the special operations of the U.S. Army spanned just one year shy of four decades. He spent 17 years working in Washington, D.C. with assignments around the globe. He was the first to serve in his family. He ultimately earned the title of command sergeant major, a position only a small percentage of individuals in the Army ever attain.
"When I would walk in the room, everyone would stand," he recalls.
Lovejoy says he has met a few angels throughout his lifetime. The first instance was when he was holding a final in-progress review in the G3 Conference Room of the Pentagon.
“I had the Army staff principal enlisted leaders and others working out the final details of an enlisted staff ride of 400 soldiers from the Pentagon. On Sept. 12, we were scheduled to visit all three branches of the federal government to enhance our knowledge of the government process with each branch to include a visit with our commander in chief at the White House. It happened to be on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.”
He will never forget what happened in the midst of an ordinary morning.
"Right in the middle of our briefing, a plane hit the building and shook it pretty well," he recalls. "As soon as I got out of the conference room, I saw a whole different world. People were running and slamming into each other. It was like a football game. The curious thing was that while everyone was running, nobody was saying a word. You could see people's clothes and hair burning. But there was a lady who pushed me over to the left side of the third corridor. Folks on the right side of that hall were killed by jet fuel. I will always be forever grateful for her." We lost two sergeant majors –Ivory and Strickland – who were in the conference room with me that morning.”
At one point, he was listed as "missing in action" because he had no way to communicate with his team.
“I was lost and disoriented. All communications were shut down, and emergency contingencies and evacuations were ongoing. That evening after wandering around for hours, I went back into the Pentagon to search for my teammates. The Pentagon was designated as a crime scene.”
When he entered, he was in for a rude awakening.
"It was like the Twilight Zone. The water inside the building was up to my waist, and it was still hot inside there. It took me hours to finally get up to my office. After a search for my teammates, I secured my bag with credit cards and keys, and it was almost completely melted. The following morning, I reported for duty with just a prayer that I would not fail at any mission as we jumped to the Army Operations Center because most of the Army G3 offices were destroyed in the attack. We lost 184 teammates in the Pentagon on 9/11. Our lives were forever changed, and I will never forget!.”
Fighting Another Battle
Lovejoy has faced several health issues later in life. He has battled post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, hypertension, hot flashes, an overall reduction in strength and stamina, obesity due to hormone suppression and Type II diabetes. He had gastric bypass surgery and completely changed his lifestyle.
"I went from 320 to 163 pounds and taking 13 pills per day down to one," he confides. "I work out at the YMCA every day and try to eat right. I'm finally in love with myself again."
It was a prostate cancer diagnosis that ultimately led to the end of his time in the Army. He was assigned to the Warrior Care and Transition Program. He started a prostate cancer support group at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas for military members and veterans dealing with prostate cancer. He went to Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio and found 17 men in the sauna who were going through the same thing he was enduring.
“We developed a prostate cancer awareness education video to discuss issues that are personal in nature publicly. By sharing our stories, we helped raise awareness and knowledge while also imparting a message of hope as prostate cancer survivors for service members, veterans, civilians and their families.”
He has always had a positive attitude when it comes to dealing with cancer.
"No matter how smart or cool you are, when you're told that you have cancer, it’s personal and everything changes," he says. "But you just have to get up and say you're going to beat this."
Selecting Saint Leo
Before enrolling, Lovejoy knew Saint Leo University was a Catholic, liberal arts-based university serving people of all faiths. Rooted in the 1,500-year-old Benedictine tradition, the institution strives to promote balanced growth in mind, body and spirit for all members of its community. It is well respected within the military community. However, he had no idea how supportive everyone would be of him upon enrolling.
"When I had cancer, it made me feel lost," he admits. "I wanted to go back to school and actually pursue something like higher education. I also realized that even with all my years in the military, if you don't have a college degree, you hit a stone wall and are very limited in what you can do."
He attended the Morrow and Gwinnett Education Centers in the Atlanta area for his undergraduate studies.
"I talked to my instructors about my cancer and health situation. I will never forget Dr. Margaret Snead telling me that we'd get through this together. However, you must use your sociological lens and imagination to navigate. No matter what kinds of challenges students were going through, she was always there to help change their lives and make a difference. She is truly my hero and the hero for many others just like myself. She never served in the military, but to me, she is a sergeant major. She is also an angel."
Snead is an assistant professor of sociology for Saint Leo.
Lovejoy earned an associate degree in liberal arts and completed his bachelor's in sociology with a specialization in applied/clinical and diversity & inequality in August 2018. He was kicked out of high school the day before graduation. So, attending commencement for his bachelor's degree meant so much to him.
"I was one of the few in Atlanta who got a class ring," he says.
His wife, Lady Veronica, is also a Saint Leo student who is pursuing her associate's in liberal arts and serves as his caregiver. He is now totally and permanently disabled due to his service-connected disabilities.
"We wake up and go to bed with Saint Leo each day," he says. "We also have plenty of intellectual, sociological conversations with each other about our classes and life in general."His service dog, Geronimo, is a Belgian Malinois. At two-and-a-half years old and weighing 65 pounds, the canine has accompanied Lovejoy wherever he goes.
"We're a team and used to go to class together before I started the online master's program," he says. "The interesting thing is that we used to use this same breed in combat."
He is now pursuing his master's in emergency and disaster management online.
"I chose this degree because there are so many disasters that take place around the world, and I wanted to know what to do in the event of something major happening. You learn how to develop and implement a plan of action to mitigate the effects of a disaster – Where to find help and help others in the event of a natural or man-made disaster.”
Lovejoy can't say enough about his experience as a student.
"I don't know if I could've made it without Saint Leo in my life," he says. "I didn't really know I was smart until my instructors saw it in me. In the Army, we say 'flex your muscles.' I want to flex the muscles of Saint Leo to show how this university is doing a fabulous job, especially with enrolling veterans and providing us with such great support. It's a total team effort."
Even in his sixties, Lovejoy has a few big career goals he is aiming for upon completion of his master's degree.
"Because Dr. Snead was so fabulous, I would love to be an adjunct professor at Saint Leo teaching Liberal Arts. I want to help make a difference in students' lives just like she has done. I know that without a higher education, it's hard to go anywhere. I want to invest in America’s future by making sure more students attend and graduate from Saint Leo."
He's also interested in full-time work as a middle school teacher.
"I want to help kids who don't have a father and are going through tough times. How does a young man learn how to treat a woman when he never saw his father love his mother? How does a young girl know how she should be treated when she never saw her father love her mother? I want them to look at me and say I am what right looks like, and I'd like to be like him when I grow up. I want to help young men and women change the trajectory of their lives and fulfill their potential."
Every Veterans Day, he goes to middle schools to speak to the students.
"I take five teddy bears with me and give them out to the students who answer my questions," he explains. "I tell them that the bear will never abandon them and that it will always take care of them if they listen to their teachers and parents. They can also take a silent oath to serve their nation when they're old enough."
Beyond teaching, he'd love to become a superintendent of a school district someday and perhaps even serve in Congress.
With all of his unique experiences in life, Lovejoy has some simple advice for college students of any age.
“You have to be honest, have integrity and never give up, " he advises.
Photo credit: The photographs included in this blog article were provided by Clifford Lovejoy and are used with permission.