- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Larry Slagel watches 190,000 to 215,000 servicemen and women leave the military each year, many seeking civilian careers. He said on-base education programs help make military personnel more marketable to employers.

Education “helps them contribute to America’s work force by rounding out their leadership skills with book smarts,” said Mr. Slagel, a former Marine who is senior vice president of RecruitMilitary, an organization that helps connect military personnel and spouses with civilian employers.

The Department of Defense says 420,000 military personnel annually take postsecondary classes in the department’s voluntary education programs, and 20 percent of active-duty forces used tuition assistance in fiscal year 2004.

The department offers up to $4,500 for tuition each fiscal year for personnel taking college courses at one of 350 education centers worldwide. In addition, veterans who are Montgomery GI Bill participants can receive approximately up to $30,000 for tuition from the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to Defense Department information.

James L. Peebles, a police lieutenant working at the U.S. Supreme Court and a former soldier, received his bachelor’s degree in management on Sept. 9 from Park University. Based in Parkville, Mo., the university has 38 campus centers on military bases, including Henderson Hall Marine Corps base and Fort Myer Military Community in Virginia, said Thomas W. Peterman, vice president for distance learning.

Taking classes at military bases enabled Lt. Peebles to complete his degree, making him the first in his immediate family to receive a college degree.

“I wanted to try to open up doors of opportunity for my family,” he said. “I figured that going back to school and obtaining my degree 27 years later would inspire members of my family.”

Lt. Peebles, 45, began his college career in 1979, when he spent one semester at Halifax Community College, near his hometown of Margarettsville, N.C. His family could not afford to finance his college education, so he relied on college grants, but when those grants were reduced, he was not able to continue his education.

Enter the U.S. Army.

Lt. Peebles enlisted in 1980 and served until 1995, retiring as sergeant first class in the Military Police Corps. While in the service, he took college classes on base at Quantico and Henderson Hall Marine Corps bases, Fort Myer Military Community and Thomas Jefferson Middle School, as well as online, using some tuition assistance from the Veterans Education Assistance Program.

He received an associate degree in 1992 from Central Texas College, which enabled him to enter the senior ranks of noncommissioned officers. He spent 12 years working on the associate degree because of having to drop classes when he was deployed to South Korea, Japan and the Netherlands.

“It’s duty first to protect your country,” he said. “I always found myself having to start [classes] over and over and over.”

Now, however, online class offerings often allow military personnel to continue classes no matter where they are deployed. L. Dian Stoskopf , director of the Army’s continuing education system, said the Army currently has 62,578 soldiers participating in its online education program.

“The Army must constantly change to be able to meet today’s and tomorrow’s national security challenges,” Ms. Stoskopf said. “[Education] prepares soldiers for the future, allows them to better deal with challenges and provides them with skills to maintain a competitive edge while in service and after they transition back to civilian jobs.”

In addition to Army tuition assistance, Lt. Peebles received help from his current employer. Three years ago, Lt. Peebles once again began taking classes with the hopes of finishing the bachelor’s degree he had started work on while in the Army. He said the U.S. Supreme Court reimbursed him for at least 85 percent of his classes.

Lt. Peebles was Park University’s Metropolitan District of Washington outstanding graduate, and he gave a speech entitled “A Second Chance” at the Sept. 9 graduation ceremony.

“When I look at my life and how I had a lot of roadblocks and hurdles and obstacles, I could have quit,” he said. “[Life] has given me a second chance, and I think with that the journey hasn’t ended. It’s just beginning.”

Dennis Gresdo, academic director for Park University’s Metropolitan District of Washington and assistant professor in management, said of the outstanding graduate, “We select a student who best represents the spirit and heart of that graduation class.”

Mr. Gresdo said teaching military personnel differs from teaching traditional students because of the maturity and experience servicemen and women bring to the classroom.

“They’re there because they have seen both sides of the fence, and they want to go back to school,” he said. “You’re getting someone who is already well-established. It’s no longer that the professor [is] God and that you sit there and bow to him. They teach us.”

Mr. Gresdo said students who are being deployed overseas often ask to take their exams early, even though they know they may not live to come back and finish schooling.

“It breaks our heart,” he said. “I tell them, ‘I don’t have all the answers.’”

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