One of the saddest things I’ve witnessed during my 35 years with the Air Force – including over 23 years active duty, as a contractor, and now as an Air Force civilian – has been people who stay with our service as a career, yet never use the many educational benefits available to them.
My educational journey is in many ways a story about all the educational benefits that I’ve been fortunate enough to take advantage of over the years.
My story begins with my enlistment in the Air Force in February 1978.
To say that I was an extremely unfocused high school student is being kind. Owing to a lack of effort and many unexcused absences, I dropped out of high school and convinced my mother to sign for me to enlist when I was barely 17. At the military processing station, several recruiters told me that I scored high enough on the General Technical portion of the ASVAB entrance test to be a linguist. They gave me an artificial language test, which I passed, and after basic training I was off to the Presidio of Monterey, Calif., to learn Korean. Although the curriculum was very challenging, I had a fairly easy time with it and to this day I still enjoy the Korean language. When those recruiters told me about language training they mentioned that it would be worth civilian college credit. That didn’t mean much to me then. I had simply found a vocation I enjoyed.
Consequently, I became a lot more focused and decided to give this profession a serious try.
My 13-year enlisted career as a linguist took me on three remote tours to Korea and three tours at Fort Meade, Md.
Many of my colleagues at those locations were smart and achievement-oriented, and through them I developed a desire to get ahead. I took and passed the GED and began taking college courses funded by Air Force tuition assistance – a fantastic education benefit.
Attending class in the evenings was a long, hard struggle, but by 1986 I completed enough classes to earn my Community College of the Air Force degree. The officer presiding at the commencement ceremony encouraged us to go on and pursue a bachelor’s degree, which I had already resolved to do. When I spoke to a counselor at the University of Maryland, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the university would transfer 33 semester hours of credit for the basic and intermediate Korean courses I completed in Monterey. This put me within a year of completing a bachelor’s degree and also made me eligible for a program called Operation Bootstrap. This was a super deal in which – if my duty section agreed – I could go to school full time, at full pay (E-6, at the time), to earn my degree. I could not use Air Force tuition assistance while participating in this program, but I could and did use my benefits under the Veterans Education Assistance Program.
Operation Bootstrap was a three-to-one payback: for whatever time it took me to complete my degree, I had to pay back three times that to the Air Force. When I completed my Bachelor of Arts in Government and Politics in 1987, I was at nine years time in service and I owed three additional years active duty service commitment time.
I decided that since I was already committed to the Air Force, I may as well apply for a commission and go as far as I could in those remaining years. I was accepted to Officer Training School and was commissioned a second lieutenant on Nov. 20, 1991 – a very proud moment for me. I was assigned to missile crew duty at Whiteman AFB, Mo. While there I learned that there was another education program specifically for my career field called the Minuteman Crew Member Education Program, which would pay for graduate courses, to include books. Another great education deal!
I completed as many courses at the University of Central Missouri as I could through MCMEP, but when the missile wing at Whiteman shut down I had to PCS after only three years on station.
During subsequent assignments I kept plugging away with occasional night courses. My goal was to transfer credits back to CMU and complete an Master of Arts in History, which I did in 2003, two years after I retired from active duty.
The challenge for me – as it is for anyone trying to get ahead in any profession – has been to find the right balance among home life, school and work. In hindsight, I regret not having completed my education sooner and not having advanced through the ranks quicker, but this is simply the way the trade-offs worked for me. I am very pleased with the results.
My educational journey didn’t end with my retirement from active duty as a captain in 2001.
In the early 1990s, I paid $1,200 to convert my VEAP account to the Montgomery GI Bill. I still consider this one of the best investments I ever made. In late 2005 I took a job as a contractor with the Electronic Systems Center. My MA in history wasn’t going to provide adequate “creds” for the acquisition business, so I enrolled in Boston University’s Master of Science in Business Administration program conducted on Hanscom [AFB, Mass.] I completed my second master’s degree in 2009. The next year the GI Bill even paid the $500 fee for me to take the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Professional certification exam!
Here I am in 2012 with an associate’s, a bachelor’s, two master’s degrees and a PMP certification, all thanks to Air Force educational assistance programs.
My GI Bill benefits expired last year, and I’m proud to say that there weren’t more than a few dollars left in my account when it was closed.
Looking back, I can say with confidence that the excellent training and off-duty education I received always made me a better and more productive person on the job. I’m sure this is at least part of the logic behind the establishment of these programs, which I hope will continue to stay around for those who follow. It’s a win-win for both the Air Force and those who actively pursue these benefits.
To those of you who are just starting your journey, take advantage of as many educational benefits as you can. You’ll find that education is the key to the door of opportunity, and the ticket to success!