Mike Ruess said recently that he has two main goals: to help Vietnam veterans as well as encourage the teaching of U.S. History in schools.
Originally from Michigan, Ruess was a U.S. History teacher at Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro and a history teacher in Clarksville. Before that, he served in the U.S. Army for 21 years, living in five different countries through that time.
Today, Ruess serves as VFW commander as well as one of Bedford County’s veteran service officers. “We get veterans to come into the office to apply for disability. Vietnam veterans are the most difficult ones,” Ruess explained while recently speaking at the Shelby Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
This is because when veterans came back from Okinawa or Saigon, their records were not clear. “So, I’m an advocate for Vietnam veterans right now, and I’m an advocate nationwide for Vietnam veterans to clear their records,” Ruess said.
The problem, however, is that many of the veterans’ discharge papers—their DD214s—do not match what is archived because the records never got there, according to Ruess. “So, we have Vietnam veterans who have no proof they were in Vietnam,” he said. This is different from World War II veterans whose records are clear and great.
Ruess understands the difficulties veterans face. “When I went into the Army it was 1979, it was a very bad time. Carter was president and we were gas rationing on odd-even days. And we had 14 percent unemployment in our state at the time,” he said.
It was also the post-Vietnam War era—a time that influences Ruess’ work today. Though the military and teaching seem very different, the two careers go hand-in-hand in many ways.
Growing up, a lot of Ruess’ teachers were either World War II veterans or grew up in that era and therefore had strong patriot sentiments. “We learned how patriotism was so important in this nation. We learned about the value of what we had to do in order to keep our freedom—to be able to speak freely, to be able to vote freely,” Ruess said.
This teaching is something that school systems lose today, Ruess said.
After his military career, he became a teacher in 2002.
Before becoming a teacher, he completed a program called Chapter 23 Vocational Rehabilitation, which allowed him to get a master’s degree in education at Austin Peay. “I was so determined,” he said. “I had lived in five different countries, and I wanted to teach history. And teaching history is so important.”
But teaching U.S. History isn’t just about looking inward to the United States. It’s also about teaching world history. Ruess lived in Germany for 10 years, among other countries, including Hungry, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kosovo.
“And I can tell that the idea that America is so great, is something they want. Something that they strive to get. And that’s something else students need to learn.”
“We didn’t go out and conquer those places and live among them. No, we showed them.”
Ruess said his goal when teaching his students was to make sure they remember how important history is, through practices like remembering the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
“What a document, huh?” he said. “We the People of the Unites States in order to for a more perfect Union . . . . How important is that? You’ve got to engrain that into the kids. But as time went on, that got harder and harder. And it’s really impossible now.”
Typically, U.S. history starts around 4th grade. The state requires for 8th grade to teach from the beginning of the U.S. to Reconstruction. By 11th grade, you’re supposed to remember all that as well as the time up to the Gulf War.
“My famous line was ‘you were supposed to remember that in 8th grade,’” Ruess said with a laugh. “But my point is the teacher needs to engrain into the individual.”
When you teach U.S. history, you have to start with Jamestown, Ruess argued. “Because it was a ragtag bunch of people that came here and put it together. [William] Bradford wanted to make this the great Zion on the Hill for everybody to see.”
That was the basis of the country for all the world to see, explained Ruess.
Ruess retold how when the Declaration of Independence was “sent across the water” to King George III of England, who upon receiving it, “wadded it up and threw it in the fire.”
“Everyone then in the colonies was a rebel, subject to the kings’ mercy. They fought through it.”
While speaking at DAR, Ruess emphasized the significance of the Revolutionary War. “It was probably one of the greatest wars that was ever fought. Again, it was a bunch of ragtag people coming together to defeat the greatest army in the world, the greatest navy in the world,” he said.
Ruess argues that the greatest battle ever fought during the war, other than Yorktown, was the Battle of Bunker Hill. “The odds were so much against them, but they fought anyway.”
“That’s what students need to know . . . . The United States still fought.”