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Men in fatigues with guns
Rusty Cotterman on one of his five tours of active duty.

Rusty Cotterman is a warrior in every sense of the word. As a member of the Army's Third Special Forces he has been deployed to conflict zones around the world including five tours in Afghanistan, Somalia, the Sahel, and most recently in Cote d’Ivoire training Ivorian Special Operations forces. It was when he returned stateside that he faced the fight of his life.  

Rusty completed his first master’s degree at the American Military College. Rusty says he would be a professional student if he could. It was a chance email that led him to discover the Master of National Security Policy Program at Duke University. “When I saw the MNSP program, it seemed perfect for me.” said Rusty. 

During a quiet phase in his career, he felt he could commit to the rigorous curriculum. His commanding officer, at Fort Bragg, had completed the Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellowship program at Duke and was supportive.  His wife and family also encouraged him to pursue the MNSP.  He was accepted into the program’s first cohort.

In the first weeks of the MNSP program, during his first on-campus immersion at Duke University, Rusty received the devastating news that he had stage 4 cancer of the head and throat. He knew this diagnosis changed everything.  He rushed back to campus and met with the program administrator, Tim Nichols.  He talked with his wife and family.  He struggled to decide whether he should step away from the program to focus on recovery, or to continue while undergoing what his oncologist called “aggressive” treatment.

Man and woman sitting on hospital chair, in masks
Rusty Cotterman underwent daily radiation treatment for cancer while pursuing his degree.

Rusty says the University and Nichols offered him the option to walk away from the program at any time, and resume later, but he was determined to finish.  While undergoing daily radiation treatments that made it painful to eat or drink, he kept working. 

“The reading, the writing, and the engagement of the program helped me mentally, so I could endure the physical,” said Rusty.  He says having class deadlines and engagement with his fellows, plus the constant support of his family, pulled him through the toughest days.

Man, woman and two children posed near bell in hospital
Rusty Cotterman with his family on the day he rang the bell to mark the end of his treatment.

As the fall semester ended, his family joined him to ring the bell to mark the end of treatment.  In January, he received the news that he is in complete remission. 

“This whole process has just made me extremely grateful.  I wake up each day and ask myself who can I thank today?”

Reflecting on his experience, Rusty said, "I'm grateful for all of it. It was a short chapter in a long book. All the outcomes were positive. I'm grateful to be where I am today and for all the people who helped me along the way."

He graduates as a proud member of the first MNSP cohort. “This program, without question, has given me so much in both knowledge and tools to better serve the soldiers I will lead.” 

Rusty's journey is a testament to the power of positivity and perseverance in the face of adversity. He is proof that even when life is at its most difficult, a positive goal and a supportive community can help carry you through.

We are proud to have Rusty as part of the Duke family, and we wish him continued health, happiness, and success.


The [Master of National Security Policy] program, without question, has given me so much in both knowledge and tools to better serve the soldiers I will lead.

Rusty Cotterman



We will be sharing graduation stories throughout the week leading up to graduation on Sanford's website, and on our social channels. Need the graduation details? Check out the official 2023 Graduation Page to find parking info, live streams and more. 

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