A Life of Service
From chemical warfare to the college classroom, Ron Bridges has served as an educator his entire career
It’s a sunny, blue-sky day, one of those days when the air is clear and distant objects are easily visible. It’s a good day to reflect upon where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going. As I sit with former U.S. Army Captain Ron Bridges and his family, I’m struck by the clarity with which he sees his life and his role in it. “I had a plan,” he says, “and I actually followed that plan.” His vision stretches from life after high school to the present day and beyond.
We’re sitting at a table under an enormous wooden pavilion that stands next to a large fishing pond at BeeRidges Farm, a 29-acre working farm, the Bridges’ home and a place that embodies the man’s goals. It’s in Clinton, off Bull Run—a narrow and winding road that meanders around and sidesteps up the rural hills. Duty and service are foundational to Bridges’ worldview and that of his family. His father and brother served in the Army. One uncle was in the Marines and another served in the Air Force. Seated at the table are three more veterans. Ron’s sons, Keith and Joshua, served in the Marines and Army, respectively. And Joshua’s wife Kristen served in the Navy. Today, the entire family, including Ron’s wife Brenda, is deeply involved in community service and helping veterans find their place in the world. They share the bonds of community, country, and God, as well as the belief that, with vision and hard work, problems can be solved, lives can be healed, and communities can be strengthened.
Dr. Ron Bridges has been a Biology Professor at Pellissippi State Community College since 1999. He says, “Most people when they leave high school don’t know where they’re going to go,” he says, “but I did.” At a young age, Bridges decided to go to college, serve in the military, and then spend the rest of his life helping others as an educator.
And that’s what he’s done. In high school, Bridges won a four-year ROTC scholarship to Florida Southern College where he’d go on to earn his bachelor’s degree in biology before being commissioned in the Army and sent to Giessen, Germany. He served there for three years as a chemicals officer and assistant operations officer, and talks fondly of his time there. “The Army sends you through a two-week orientation course; they teach you a little German. One of the guys was from southern Georgia. It’s funny hearing someone try to speak German with a strong southern accent.”
Upon arrival in Giessen, he was tasked with training soldiers to defend themselves against chemical attacks. But the situation he stepped into confounded him. During the training, soldiers knew precisely when they’d have to use their gas masks and when they’d encounter this or that threat. The training bore no resemblance to the reality of the deadly situations they would inevitably encounter. So Bridges rebuilt the program, incorporating the rigor and uncertainty required to prepare soldiers for combat. For example, while the soldiers practiced standard skills, such as crawling under wire, Bridges would toss a gas grenade into the field. He forced the soldiers to think on their feet (or stomachs), a skill that would undoubtedly save many lives. Bridges published his approach in an Army training magazine, getting the word out and helping to ensure others got the same experience and training. As he has done throughout his life, he saw a problem and fixed it.
Brenda, Bridges’ wife, gave birth to their first son Keith there in Germany. They enjoyed their time there—seeking out and exploring abandoned castles—but after three years, Bridges was transferred to Fort Rucker in Alabama. They had a second son Joshua shortly thereafter. There at Fort Rucker, which hosts the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence, Bridges took action on the next step in his plan. He began teaching in a classroom setting, teaching aviators how to defend themselves against chemical attacks. Then, in 1989, he began training soldiers in the National Guard and attending Troy University, where he’d go on to earn a master’s degree in education with a concentration in biology.
But not all things go according to plan. Two months into the job, Iraq invaded Kuwait, leading the U.S. into operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In just the first eight months, Bridges trained 20,000 National Guard reservists using the techniques he’d pioneered during his time in Giessen—teaching soldiers how to react to the unexpected.
The Army then transferred Bridges to Fort Gillem in Georgia. He took advantage of the proximity to Georgia Tech to continue working on his future goals. He beefed up his teaching resume, earning a second master’s degree, this time in chemistry, so when the Army began downsizing, Bridges was well-positioned to take the next step in his life’s journey. A position opened up for a professor who could teach both biology and chemistry at Chattahoochee Technical Institute in 1996. He got the job but quickly realized that the school, which had no laboratory at the time, was planning to build one that would have been under-equipped. Bridges intervened. “I asked if I could change the blueprints, and they said I had two weeks.” After leaving the military, Bridges’ father had started a construction firm. They built the heavy timber framing of what was then known as Walt Disney World Village, and Bridges got his bearings with blueprints at an early age. He made the necessary changes, and the school got a lab that met academic standards.
After three years, Bridges says, “we weren’t sure we wanted to raise our children in a suburb of Atlanta with Atlanta growing as it was.” Tennessee was an attractive option; Bridges’ mother was from Tennessee. When a biology professor position opened up at Pellissippi State, he took a shot and applied. Bridges got the job and moved the family, selling everything they had. But finding a new home proved to be difficult. “Every time we showed up to view a house,” he says, “it was already sold.”
They ended up living in dome tents while they searched. “On the first day of classes,” Bridges says, “I told the students to stand up and say something interesting about themselves.” Bridges shared as well, saying, “Well, I’ll tell you something about myself. I’m homeless.” Fortunately, by the second class, Bridges was able to announce, “Guess what? I’m not homeless anymore!”
After nine years and extensive renovations on a home in Oliver Springs, they decided they needed more land. They purchased a home on 29 acres in rural Clinton. The home presented an opportunity for Bridges to put his plan-and-execute lifestyle to work once again. “There was mold everywhere,” he says. “Brenda took two steps in the house and two steps out because the smell was so bad.” But the work paid off. Today there stands a beautiful house, a large wooden pavilion, an enormous fishing pond and dock, a barn, and several sheds. They raise and sell chickens, ducks, goats, rabbits, and turkeys. Despite the challenge, they hope to begin raising honeybees. And in the midst of it all, Bridges found time to earn his doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Tennessee in 2012. It’s an enormous workload. Yet, consistent with the rest of his life, Bridges still has further plans. At the top of the list is making BeeRidges a place where veterans from all walks of life feel at home.
Serving Those Who Served
If you ask Bridges and his family, they’d say they’ve had a blessed life, but it’s also clear that vision, hard work, and persistence have paid off. Now they focus on helping veterans find their place in civilian life. At Pellissippi State, Bridges served as Faculty President and helped form the Veterans Support Committee. The committee worked to create Pellissippi’s Ben Atchley Veterans Success Center, which offers veterans a network of support services. Bridges is currently the Veterans Success Coordinator and advisor to the Veterans Club. They’ve recently hired an Air Force veteran to help run these veteran services. Ironically, he’s making the transition from military to civilian life by helping other veterans do the same.
Bridges and his family have worked with groups to cut walking paths for the Oak Ridge Veterans Center and to clear brush at the Sharp’s Ridge Veteran Memorial Park. They participate in the “22 boots” project, designed to raise awareness of the 22 veterans who commit suicide each day. They work to build homes for homeless vets, and have been known to pick up hitchhiking veterans and invite them into their home at BeeRidges Farm. Keith is currently working to establish a non-profit called “Shield to Field,” which is based on an old Spartan methodology. He explains, “Spartans did 30 years in the military. When they retired from the service, they were often given a parcel of land. They were farmers and politicians.” The family is working with others to create the East Tennessee Veterans Coalition, an organization to help coordinate the efforts of many other veterans organizations.
“It’s the people who are the most important,” Brenda says. “It has got to be about people and community. We’ve imparted that to our boys; we did a lot of volunteer work when they were young.” Keith had two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan as a Marine (he is now in the Army Reserve); and Joshua had two tours in Iraq with the Army. But Brenda has stayed strong. “For nine years, one or both of my sons was deployed. Everyone asked, ‘Aren’t you a nervous wreck?’ And I said no. I chose faith over fear.”
Bridges and his family are working to make BeeRidges Farm a community hub where veterans and others can gather, help each other out, and share their stories. In the meantime, BeeRidges Farm offers fishing and livestock sales, as well as beautiful facilities and scenery for weddings and parties. Bridges’ mind is swimming with future plans. Swing by BeeRidges Farm sometime and ask him about them.
For more information about BeeRidges Farm, check out its Facebook page.