JACKSON, Tenn. – May 23, 2002 – His family and friends were there, his classmates and professors were there. But when his name, Robert Acie Clifford, II, was read at Union’s May 2002 graduation ceremony, he was not. Instead, in his honor, red, white and blue balloons were released to the sky. Just a month earlier, in April, Senior Airman Robert Clifford was called from full-time studies at Union to serve the United States in the war on terrorism, a result of the horrific events of 9/11.
Serving in an undisclosed location overseas, airman Clifford, a member of the 164th Air Wing, Tennessee Air National Guard, was serving his last term at Union when he received word he was to report to his unit for active duty. Consequently, he was forced to graduate in absentia during Saturday’s ceremony. His tour of duty may last up to one year.
“My interest in serving in the military first began during Desert Storm,” said Clifford through email correspondence. “The journey from here to there has taken me around the country and now, around the world.”
Clifford’s first military opportunity was attending the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. After eighteen months there, he decided that a full-time military career was not what he wanted, and made the decision to return home and join the Air National Guard.
In the Air National Guard, Clifford is trained as a fuel man for the aircraft. At Union, he majored in political science and minored in finance, while also working as a resident advisor at McAfee.
“Military training has indirectly helped me be a better student, friend, and citizen,” said Clifford, adding that his studies at Union have taught him “that the world is not compartmentalized, that each “box” affects the other and being a member of the Armed Forces, especially during this time gives me a better picture of what the world is like.” Grateful to have been taught foundational concepts of truth and learning, Clifford’s beliefs have been tested and challenged and “sometimes thrown out the window” only to return to seeking and finding what is true, he believes. He feels privileged with opportunities to test life’s valuable lessons and to “develop and re-develop” his worldview.
“It is a continuous process that I look forward to continuing the rest of my life,” he stated.
Clifford has found Union professors and administration very supportive and extremely helpful to him while he completed his course work. Working on senior seminar papers half way around the world, although not ideal, was a positive experience for him thanks to the help of modern technology.
His parents, Robert, Sr., and Anna Clifford (assistant professor of early childhood education at Union) echo their son’s gratitude to Union professors for their support and prayers for their son and for the cards and letters received from so many people. They muse over the change in life’s situations. As a young boy, the younger Clifford faithfully wrote letters and prepared goody bags for servicemen during Desert Storm. Now he is on the receiving end of school children’s letters and packages, which, according to his mother, he works very hard to answer to every note he receives. Pride, mixed with some anxiety, describes their thoughts. As Christians they rest in the comfort that God is in control.
“Our son is a Christian first and next an American,” said Clifford, Sr. “He felt he needed to serve his country and this is the best way that he thought he could.” After the graduation ceremony, his parents emailed Clifford to let him know how the events took place and about the patriotic balloons released in his honor. He wrote his family back with these thoughts.
“I don’t know what to say...it was a long day for me,” wrote Clifford. “I went over in my mind each event from baccalaureate to graduation as it progressed. I had waited a long time for this day and then I couldn’t be there. I take comfort in remembering that my plan is not always God’s plan, but with certainty I know I’m in God’s plan.”
By Beverly Vos ('02),
Assistant Director of University Relations
Sara B. Horn,