After two decades on active duty with the Army, Richard Bethea nears this Veterans Day as a retiree and very active student in the college's cinema and screen studies program. This soldier-turned-artist also serves as a reminder of the value of a welcoming and inclusive campus.

How do you pronounce your last name?

It's buh-THAY. I've run into mispronunciations since kindergarten.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in High Point, North Carolina. For a little while, I lived in Evergreen, North Carolina, with my aunt and grandmother, and then I moved back with my mother when I was still in third grade. I graduated from T.W. Andrews High School in High Point.

How and when did you get interested in serving in the military?

It was an option. What I really wanted to do was play football and baseball. When I realized I wasn't going to get a scholarship, I looked at the military. My friend was already talking to a recruiter, so he introduced the recruiter to me. It gave me an opportunity to leave home after graduation and start my life and figure out what I really wanted to do. I decided (to join the Army) during my senior year in 1995.

When did you start in the military? 

I raised my hand in 1996. I went to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for basic training. It teaches the discipline in the military, the marching, be on time, the values -- loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. They pretty much drill that into you, along with marksmanship and physical training.

How long and where did you serve?

I did 20 years active Army, 72nd Signal Battalion. We provide communication services to whatever units need us, civilian and tactical. My first deployment was to Mannheim, Germany. Then we got on the plane and left for Kuwait. I've been deployed four times. I never fired my weapon, but I was fired at -- mortars and rockets -- at a forward operating base in Iraq while we were running cable and putting in communications. You'd wake up to it. They would miss -- thank God they were terrible shots! I was deployed there twice. My last deployment was to Afghanistan. 

What do you think of your brothers and sisters in arms who serve in heavy combat?

The most courageous people I've ever met. I've talked to tons of those soldiers that were in combat -- what they went through. What they experienced, most people would never know. They not only had to worry about themselves, but their brothers next to them. It can get to them mentally; the majority needs counseling, someone to listen to them for the rest of their lives. Huge sacrifice.

Why did you keep re-enlisting?

I wanted to do 20 (years) and to get out and start studying filmmaking. Halfway through my career, it hit me that I was supposed to be a filmmaker, so my plan was to retire so I could have some income to take care of my family. I left the service as a staff sergeant E-6. I was selected for drill sergeant, but I couldn't go, due to a ruptured Achilles tendon -- I hurt it playing flag football on a weekend. I retired July 31, 2016 -- one of the best days of my life! (Laughs.)

How did you choose SUNY Oswego?

You never know where you're going to end up in life. If I retired out of Fort Drum, it was going to be Syracuse (University), Oswego or NYU. If I retired out of Fort Lewis in Washington (state), I was going to go to Vancouver Film School. My wife is from this area, so we came back because she needed a break and help with the kids. We had been moving so much, and I was always working. I initially planned to go to New York City after working in Watertown, and network in the industry. But I had trouble finding a job, so my second goal was to educate myself. I looked at Oswego and I saw they had cinema and screen studies, and the rest is history.

Did you have help during the application process?

I was coordinating with Ben (Parker, the college's veteran and military services coordinator) the entire way till I got accepted. He helped me out with everything -- the paperwork, the federal aid -- pretty much everything. He was helpful 150 percent. I started in January 2017.

Are you a full-time student or part time?

I'm full time. I drive an hour (each way) every weekday from Sackets Harbor to attend classes. I'm a second-semester junior -- I'm 3 credit hours away from senior. I'm also going to pursue a minor in business administration. I hope to finish in spring 2020.

As a veteran and nontraditional student, how do you feel about your treatment here?

I feel accepted and respected. A few people have asked me how I got here, and when I say I was in the Army, they say, "Oh, that's awesome, Richard!" When I do tell someone, I hear every single time, "Thank you for your service." I'm so focused on getting my degree, but I feel like I'm welcome and accepted here. I have not one complaint about going to classes here -- except the snowbelt! (Laughs.)

What has been the best part of being in Oswego's film program to date?

The students and the faculty. My fellow students are passionate and motivational and helpful. We do our best to be in each other's (film) projects, to help each other. We're back and forth trying to line up each other's schedules and trying to get the best grades on our products to turn in. The professors are super knowledgeable -- wow, they know their stuff -- and helpful. They're freakin' awesome!

Can you describe any film projects that have been really fun or meaningful to you? 

I did a final for "Film Genre." I post all my projects -- from class and a few experimental ones -- on my YouTube channel, called Toy Rock Productions. My final has gotten a lot of views. A few people have suggested I turn that short film into a web series, so that's one of the projects I'm working on. My "Intro to Cinema Production" final project -- that got accepted into two film festivals. It's called "Tolerance."

Where did this artistic passion come from; did you always have it?

I was born with it -- it's my imagination. I loved being a soldier, but I'm more of an artist. I grew up poor in North Carolina. I used a rock as a toy, that's where the business name comes from, and later sticks and stuff. Getting toys only for your birthday and Christmas, you would use what was around you. In Evergreen, there was a television -- three channels: ABC, NBC and CBS. I watched all the cartoons, all the TV shows. I love creating, and it all started from drawing. I love the visuals and media.

As you move ahead, are you imagining what genre(s) you might work in?

Psychological thrillers and dramas. Films like "Seven" and "Prisoners" -- I like those types of films that make you think and keep you on the edge of your seat. Thrillers. I want to go to New York City. My plan after Oswego graduation is to do a one-year program at New York Film Academy. I've already started networking in New York and LA. I've already written a feature-length screenplay, mostly based off my experiences in the military, although the main character is not in the military. I have a lot of stories, but I would not disrespect anyone I met in the Army.

What are your interests outside of filmmaking?

I love spending time with my family. My children are old enough to play football and basketball, and I play with them. I taught them baseball. We go to the park. I love reading. We have family functions with the in-laws -- barbecues, birthdays. My mother-in-law lives in Black River, 20 minutes away from Sackets Harbor. I love going to the movies with my son. I sometimes go to movies by myself -- no one likes independent films except me; they put my son and my wife to sleep. (Laughs.) I love films -- all of 'em! I have a list of 17 other films to watch before the Oscars.

What else can you tell us about your immediate family?

My oldest is 9, my son JaVion; daughter Jazmyn is 6; my youngest daughter, Jozlyn, is 5. My wife, Misty Bethea, is a teacher's assistant in Dexter.

Is there anything cool or different about you that only family and friends know?

I still watch cartoons like Transformers and G.I. Joe. My favorites are the ones from the '80s, like He-Man. I have cartoons on the Hasbro (phone) app. I stay up and eat bowls of cereal and watch those. I'll put Transformers on and go to sleep. (Laughs.) It keeps my imagination going, keeps it fresh. I get ideas for films. It keeps my inner child active. You've got to have a joy about yourself to work with other people and go to different countries.