Despite disability, honorary Army major has compiled an impressive military record, collection

By ALEX BROWN | The Chronicle, Centralia, Wash. | Published: December 27, 2018

CENTRALIA, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — The walls of Clifford Rousseau’s Chehalis home are crowded with military memorabilia, commendations and signed photos from generals. Tank shells, models and a helmet are on display in a back room.

The collection is nearly a museum, but it’s also Rousseau’s life story.

An honorary major in the U.S. Army, Rousseau has spent decades working on tanks, crossing paths with decorated leaders and proving his merit on bases in Washington and Alaska. He’s done it all despite suffering from cerebral palsy, which makes it difficult for him to walk and speak.

“I really think that his story shows how a person, despite a disability, can participate and succeed,” reads a letter from Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf that Rousseau proudly keeps in his collection. “His determination and special abilities are something to be admired.”

Born in Yakima in 1953, Rousseau grew up the son of a World War II Air Force veteran. Fascinated with the military, he found a particular interest in tanks. After graduating high school, he approached the Army National Guard in Yakima, filled out the paperwork and began serving as an honorary member.

“I volunteered to do it,” Rousseau said. “I had it in my heart. I knew I could do it.”

Though his disability prevented him from enlisting the traditional way, Rousseau found he could contribute as an honorary member. From years of reading about tanks, he knew his way around the machinery,

“Because of his enthusiasm and his knowledge of tanks and willingness to do it, they carefully took him in as one their own and helped him,” said Sarildia Rousseau, Clifford’s wife.

Sometimes he even knew more than the servicemen he was working with.

“He knew what to do and how to do it,” Sarildia said. “Once in awhile, one of them would start to make a mistake and he would correct them.”

Rousseau has scrapbooks filled with photos of himself wielding wrenches as he works on heavy machinery, smiling with Army buddies and operating tanks in the field during drills. According to Sarildia, he once achieved the highest marks on the firing range during an accuracy for tanks. Turning the page to the letter from Schwarzkopf, he eagerly pointed to the paragraph highlighting his determination, clearly touched by the leader’s words.

Because of his deep knowledge of tanks, and his willingness to serve despite his disability, Rousseau achieved some renown in the military. A wall of his house is plastered with photos of generals, signed with messages wishing him well and praising his accomplishments.

In addition to serving in Yakima, he spent time with the National Guard in Alaska, then the 33rd Armored Division at Fort Lewis. In all, Rousseau spent 21 years as an honorary member of the Army or National Guard.

When Clifford met Sarildia, the same persistence he showed in the military won her over as well.

“He had a bike he was riding up and down Market St., and one day spotted me and kept coming to my house and bugging me and bugging me,” she said. “Eventually, I wound up saying yes.”

The couple married in 1982, and Sarildia said the years since then have seen Clifford make slow but steady strides, both in movement and speech.

“He’s overcome his cerebral palsy compared to what it was then,” she said. “I had to work with him really hard. … We’ve come a long way over all these years.”

Perhaps the crown jewel of Rousseau’s impressive military collection is out in the garage, a series of components that will one day make up a one-quarter scale wooden tank. Piece by piece, the model will come together, comprising a 6-foot tank. It will be made up of all the same parts as the real deal, down to the track adjusting link assembly, a completed piece Rousseau proudly showed off.

The model tank will be the third Rousseau has built, putting to use the skills he learned in wood shop in high school and during his time working on tanks in the military. One of his tanks won a special award at the Southwest Washington Fair in 2005, and it’s now touring the country on display.

“This is gonna be the biggest one,” said Mary Arth, an employment consultant with Morningside Services who’s known Rousseau since childhood.

Arth beamed as she watched Rousseau show off his collection and life story, reflecting on all she’s watched him accomplish.

“Wonderful,” she said. “Just a true blessing.”

©2018 The Chronicle (Centralia, Wash.)
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