See more of the story

At age 70, Brad Williams is just getting started.

After serving in the military during the Vietnam War and suffering injuries that still affect him, and following a decadeslong career, Williams is starting a brand-new chapter as a college student.

He is pursuing a business management degree at Bethel University in Arden Hills. After he graduates in two years, he hopes to return to work.

“This gives me a choice,” he said. “I plan to use every ounce of this education for the betterment of society.”

The first time he tried higher education was right after graduating from high school.

Williams briefly attended college, but said he wasn’t motivated to pursue his education at the time and decided to serve in the military during the Vietnam War.

“I didn’t really have a mission to be [in college] and realized that if I left that I would end up getting drafted,” he said. “And so I decided to enlist.”

After serving in the war, Williams worked for 35 years at Northern States Power Co., which later became Xcel Energy.

He then left his job and worked at a national consulting firm. However, injuries he suffered during the war began to impact his work, so he decided to leave that job, too.

While he was in Vietnam, Williams worked with loud, powerful guns that severely damaged his hearing. He was exposed to Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the U.S. military to destroy Vietnamese vegetation. This caused many bouts of skin cancer, which led to more than 300 surgeries.

Williams discovered that if he ever wanted to go back to work, he would need a college degree. He learned that because of his disabilities from the war, the VA would pay for his tuition.

Williams said he isn’t sure where he will work after he graduates but that he wants to work as a director or manager of operations for a company.

Those who know him say they admire his resilience and passion.

“He’s always ready for a challenge, even at his age. He doesn’t want to give up on his dreams, and I’m glad he’s able to finish what he started,” said Williams’ son, Tim Williams.

Unknown benefits

Williams said he has close friends who also served in Vietnam who aren’t aware of veterans benefits they’re eligible to receive.

“Through this process, as far as understanding what’s available, I just felt that, man, I didn’t know. And the more people I talked to, I realized they didn’t know either,” he said.

John Morris, executive director of the Office of Military and Veteran Services at Bethel University, works to educate veterans about their benefits.

“When we’re leaving military service, we’re not in the best … frame of mind, we just want to go home. We’re not paying attention to the things that are being offered to us,” Morris said. “Then we get out here into society and ... we don’t know where to go.”

Morris said he’s inspired by what Williams has been through.

“I have high regard for Vietnam veterans and the sensitivity to how they were treated,” he said. “To see Brad fulfill his dream, come back to school after all these years, particularly under the circumstances he’s dealing with, the skin cancer and Agent Orange, I think it takes a lot of courage.”

Williams applied to several other universities and ultimately decided on Bethel, which he said is a welcoming campus.

“The staff is phenomenal. The support, the counselors and everybody else. I just can’t say enough good things about them,” he said.

He’s enjoying his classes so far, but the bigger workload and technology has been an adjustment.

“If I walk around and go to the bookstore, get a cup of coffee, people think I’m a teacher,” he said.

Most of Williams’ classes are comprised of older nontraditional students, but he’s the oldest student in the class.

Shares life experiences

Joel Olson, an adjunct English instructor at Bethel who taught one of Williams’ classes last fall, said he was always enthusiastic to learn.

“Life experience brings a lot to any class when a student is willing to talk about something they’ve learned, and then you can connect it to the material that we’re talking about in the class. It makes it a more authentic experience for everyone,” he said.

Williams said his favorite part about going back to school has been simply learning.

“I was really deathly afraid that this was gonna be so beyond me,” he said. “Coming back to school after 50 years, you can imagine it was blowing a lot of the dust off. But, I decided if I want to do this then I was going to apply myself, graduate and get good grades.”

Olson said he encourages anyone to go back to school and continue to learn.

“I feel really strongly that it’s important to be someone who continues learning throughout their life,” he said. “You engage with your life, accept new challenges and keep moving forward.”

Katrina Pross (katrina.pross@startribune.com) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.