The steely-eyed, square-jawed Army veteran nearly comes to tears as he describes three indelible moments that stand out from the pack of trials and tribulations he has endured. The stress fractures of life are evident in Bronsen Smith’s speech, coated in a traditional southern drawl.
His voice cracks as he tells of watching the flag-draped coffins of his brothers in arms return to Ramstein Air Force base in Germany. Filled with a mix of patriotism and sadness, he talks about the lasting impact that moment has had on his life.
The second memory that brings tears to his eyes is watching his six uncles serve as pallbearers for his little sister. Bronsen knows life is not fair, but attending his 32-year-old sister’s funeral was almost too much to bear.
Unlike the first two memories, the third event that chokes him up is about life. A new life as a college graduate.
The mere thought of walking across the stage in Zorn Arena during UW-Eau Claire’s May 20 spring commencement leaves Bronsen fighting back emotions, the same emotions that have driven the 34-year-old as he beats the odds and chases his dreams through higher education.
“I will just be trying to stop myself from being overly emotional,” Bronsen says, gripping the cane he uses after reconstructive surgeries on his ankle. “I get choked up just thinking about it. It hasn’t really set in just how big of an accomplishment this is just yet, but I do realize it is a huge thing.”
A rough start
Unlike most of the Blugolds who will graduate this month, no one expected Bronsen to earn a bachelor’s degree.
While UW-Eau Claire’s graduating class will include other nontraditional students and Blugolds who are the first in their families to earn a college degree, Bronsen is likely the only one graduating who began his educational journey after being kicked out of high school.
He was a student at a high school in Florida when he threatened a man during a drug deal on school property.
When the police found a gun in his car, he knew his high school days were over.
“I wasn’t exactly a dedicated student,” Bronsen says. “I was given the chance to drop out rather than try to stay and fight the charges, so I was expelled. I had to grow up fast.”
Bronsen was not only out of school at 16, but also out of his parents’ home.
He moved in with his girlfriend and newborn son, Matthew.
As a 16-year-old father, Bronsen tried to do the right thing even when everything was going wrong.
You’re in the Army now
After marrying his girlfriend, Bronsen needed to provide for his family, so he joined the Army at 17.
Soon he was off to basic training in Georgia, on to Virginia and eventually to Germany, where he worked as a transportation management specialist.
The horror of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, brought war and a new reality as Bronsen served overseas.
Charged with supporting the movement of troops and tanks to the battlefields in Afghanistan, Bronsen had much to learn. The 100-hour workweeks were hard on his body. His ankles and knees took a pounding from the combat boots and concrete.
The arthritis now in his joints is more common for someone twice his age, but Bronsen does not complain about the price he paid to serve his country.
“I remember the day that C-130 landed at the base,” Bronsen says. “It was a funeral procession. It’s tough, because I knew some of them, the lives they had, and I knew that was all gone. And then you realize you still have your life. I loved my time in the Army. It opened my eyes to a lot of things.”
The next challenge
Bronsen came home after his July 2003 discharge, and his wife soon gave birth to their second son, Andrew.
After moving to Mississippi, Bronsen enrolled at East Mississippi Community College to begin working toward an associate degree.
While he was happy to be in school and thinking about a new career, the strain of being married as a teenager and serving overseas took a toll on Bronsen’s marriage. He and his wife divorced, and after losing custody of his sons, Bronsen tried to pick up the pieces of his life.
“That was where my life reached a low point,” Bronsen says. “But I kept working on my associate degree, and I met my new wife, Solitaire. Then my father moved to Rice Lake, which is where he is originally from. Solitaire and I wanted to be close to family, so we followed my dad and moved north.”
After fixing up a seasonal cottage on Rice Lake that belonged to his grandparents, Bronsen and Solitaire moved into their humble home. Bronsen took a job with the Washburn County Highway Department, but the dream of earning a bachelor’s degree kept filling his head.
“I wanted to do more, and I wanted to help people,” Bronsen says. “My sister and I were best friends. She was dealing with addiction, fighting it hard and losing the battle. She was my inspiration to go back to school. My hope was to get into some form of counseling. I wanted to get to a place where I could help others and veterans.”
With support from the GI Bill, in the summer of 2014 he enrolled in classes at UW-Barron County, hoping to complete his degree.
After learning he could not earn a bachelor’s in social work from that school, he looked to UW-Eau Claire, and began working toward his bachelor’s degree during Winterim 2015.
Blugolds have your back
Bronsen already was in the social work program when his little sister, Danica, died unexpectedly.
With her death, his world began to crumble once again.
Though he earned the Social Work Excellence Award in his first semester as a Blugold, his grades — and his dream of earning a degree — began to fall apart when he struggled after Danica died.
That is when his Blugold family stepped in to offer their support.
He has a long list of faculty and staff who stepped up to support him during his two years on campus, years that included his sister’s death and surgeries on his ankle.
Dr. Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, professor of history, worked with him on an independent study, and the entire social work department helped him deal with the loss of his sister. Their support, he says, kept him in school and looking to the future.
“Dr. Leah Olson-McBride, well, she offered me everything but her boots,” Bronsen says of the chair of the social work department. “She is amazing. Jamie Tester and Mallory Knipe were unbelievably helpful to me. Professor Shelly Statz was the first important relationship I developed in the social work department. I have worn out their doormats.
“Dr. Lisa Quinn-Lee’s specialty is death and bereavement, and I used a lot of her Kleenex.”
Bronsen says he will miss his “family” in the social work department, and the feeling is mutual.
“I loved having Bronsen in class because he kept me on my toes,” says Olson-McBride, chair of the social work department. “Bronsen is the type of student who asks great questions and seek to truly understand what we are discussing in class. Bronsen’s lived experiences as a veteran, as a father and a nontraditional student will benefit him greatly in the world of social work.”
As a veteran, Bronsen benefitted from the GI Bill, but also from the outstanding support network for veterans on UW-Eau Claire’s campus.
Miranda Cross-Schindler, who has supported veterans on campus for years, was one of the reasons Bronsen felt at home at UW-Eau Claire.
“Miranda has influence, she gets things done, and she gets them done yesterday,” Bronsen says. “She has been enormous for me. In my first semester here, I felt like an ant on a giant ant hill. Miranda helped me understand how to pick my battles. The first time I walked into her office it was like we were cousins. She has a personal touch that is second to none.”
Bronsen, who is completing an internship at the Chippewa County Recovery and Wellness Consortium, plans to pursue a master’s degree, and hopes to work for the Veterans Administration to help others who have served and are struggling with substance abuse.
Miranda expects Bronsen will be a great resource for veterans fighting to fit in after returning home.
“His life experiences have provided him with a drive to overcome adversity and help others who need support,” Miranda says. “He attributes a lot of his success to his support system on campus, which is absolutely critical, but I hope he knows that it was his mission-oriented mindset and desire to learn that is the reason he will be the first of his family to graduate from college.”
Though Bronsen is aware he beat the odds, he believes others can do the same.
By sharing his story, he hopes others who face a difficult path will learn what is possible and what it means to be a Blugold.
“I didn’t succumb to what people would have bet a lot of money I was going to,” Bronsen says. “UW-Eau Claire, if you give it your honest, complete effort and reflect on that effort with integrity and give it 100 percent, this place will become your family.”
Photo caption: Bronsen Smith will graduate with a bachelor's degree in social work this month. Bronsen, an Army veteran, has overcome several obstacles to pursue his dream of helping veterans and people addicted to drugs and alcohol.