Graduate student Gerard Placide was inspired by the 9/11 terrorist attacks to join the military. He wanted to give back to a country that he said had given him so much. Placide first served in the Army National Guard and then in the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Georgia. He was nominated to the U.S. Veterans Hall of Fame by New York State Sen. Zellnor Myrie.

But even before his time in the service, he had already lived quite a bit. Born in Trinidad to humble beginnings, he traveled the world as a gospel singer, crooning for dignitaries such as Queen Elizabeth II and the Duchess of York at Buckingham Palace. During his time in the service, he enjoyed audiences with Sen. John McCain and presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

“Music has always been a sort of therapy for me,” he says.

After leaving the military, he completed a bachelor’s degree in general studies and is currently enrolled in the master’s degree program in political science with a specialization in international affairs and global justice.

Here, he talks candidly about his life struggles, the chance encounter that led him to enroll in the military, and how world leaders inspired him to be a force for change.

Tell me about your background.

I grew up on the streets. I came from a Christian family, but I still had a somewhat troubled background. It wasn’t easy for me. I was homeless for six years in my 20s. The Catholic Charities took me off the streets and gave me an opportunity to sing. I loved it. Through them, I ended up getting an opportunity to go to England to sing for the Queen and the Duchess of York. Things started looking up for me.

So what brought you to the United States?

I was young and wanted to come to America. I didn’t know anything about America, only what we see on television as the land of opportunity and the streets of gold. When I got here, I quickly realized that was as fictional as Spiderman and you had to work for everything. I used to sing in Times Square with my collection hat just to survive. One day I saw a flyer for a gospel competition sponsored by McDonald’s. I entered and won the McDonald’s Gospel Soloist Award in 2001 and then again the next two years. I became the first West Indian American to win.

That’s impressive. And then you enlisted after 9/11?

September 11 was what inspired me, but I didn’t enlist until 2006. Interestingly enough, I was doing karaoke at a bar in Delaware, where I had been visiting, and ended up meeting Beau Biden [the president’s late son]. We started talking, and I mentioned that I had been thinking about joining the military. We kept in touch, and he helped me get started. I ended up serving in the Army National Guard’s 3rd Infantry Division.

And then after your service, you decided you wanted to get your degree.

I got a bachelor’s degree in general studies from St. Joseph’s University, New York. When I was thinking about graduate school, several people told me about Brooklyn College’s program. I always had a pulse for global justice and international relations. I’m concerned about failing democracies and their foundational institutions. I want to help the United States analyze other cultures through a different lens than what we’re used to in this country. I think I have a valuable perspective. My goal is to help promote a softer side of the U.S. I want to be a foreign service officer and work closely with the administration of the day on policy. I want to speak truth to power.

I’ve heard Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela talk about the change that one man can make. At times, I was inclined to dismiss the notion of what I am trying to do because I am not a young man. But I realized I can still run 2 miles in 20 minutes. I’ve got a lot of energy left in me. And I’m ready to use it for good in this world.