Soldier’s combat scars won’t deny him a coveted degree
Jeff Fulton’s road to Clemson University was unlike that of any other College of Business graduate who will receive a degree in August.
In 2010, the then U.S. Army staff sergeant was centimeters away from taking a sniper’s bullet in the head while riding in a vehicle his unit used to remove landmines from roadways in Afghanistan, as part of the 323rd Engineer Company, 926th Engineer Brigade.
“I guess you could call that a life-changing moment. The windshield’s bulletproof glass only allowed the lead into the third of the windshield’s four-layers, directly in front of my face,” said Fulton of Simpsonville.
The harrowing experiences Fulton encountered during two tours of duty in Afghanistan took its toll on the 33-year-old management major. After his military service, Fulton was enrolled at Clemson part-time. But his past caught up with him.
“I struggled with what I had experienced as a young man. There was rarely a mission we went on where our unit didn’t come under fire. Because of what we did, we were on the front lines. Every day was a struggle to stay alive, and what we saw was another story,” the former leader of a landmine-removal unit said.
The same day he escaped the sniper’s bullet in a vehicle, Fulton took on sniper fire a second time while delivering munitions to an assault unit at the front lines. While toting the ammunition, a bullet whisked past Fulton’s head and sprayed dirt on his face when it hit the mountainside behind him. The Army Commendation Medal with ‘V’ device for Valor Medal he would receive for his actions that day, wouldn’t fix the pain he was about to experience.
Fulton was a classic victim of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Though he tried to hide the scars that were left by numerous narrow escapes with death, he couldn’t. He attempted to mask the pain with alcohol, but that contributed to academic suspension because his focus lagged, along with his GPA.
“It was a very low point in my life. When I told counselors of all my experiences and that as a 26-year-old I was responsible for a group of 15 soldiers on the front lines, I began to understand it’s no wonder there were some ghosts to overcome,” he said. “I was in denial, but finally realized that if I didn’t get help and bring some walls down, the future was bleak.”
Jeff credits wife, Gina, a nurse practitioner, for inspiring him to reverse his downward spiral. That, the counseling and a burning desire to finish school, re-ignited the focus he was lacking.
“I wanted to re-enroll, but needed to make my case for it. Part of that was a letter of recommendation. I went to a professor I really respected and who took an interest in me succeeding,” Fulton added.
That professor was Phil Roth in business management. In addition to the letter of recommendation, Roth’s teaching acumen impressed Fulton, as did the mentorship he showed the undergraduate.
“There’s no question he was influential in my success here. When I came back to school, I needed 27 credits to graduate and was going to need A’s in just about all of those classes to graduate. He listened and took me on. It was clear, he cared about my success, and I want to thank him for what he did.”
Fulton, who works as a project coordination manager at Windstream in Greenville, has achieved eight A’s and one B since returning from his academic suspension. And, another reason he has to remain focused is newborn son, Jacob, who entered his and Gina’s life in May.
“The journey at Clemson was a real sense of accomplishment for me. My back was against the wall, but I put my mind to it and persevered. I’m not only graduating from a school I had dreamed about attending since I was a kid, but I did it under some pretty difficult circumstances.”
Roth credited Fulton’s perseverance and commitment for turning his academic fortunes around.
“He’s a very bright and capable student, who needed a little encouragement during a difficult time in his life. Over the course of several discussions, I just told him how capable he was of reaching the goals he had set for himself. He earned this outcome with a lot of hard work and focus.”
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