While 3rd Infantry Division was serving its third deployment to Iraq within five years, its soldiers set records amassing college credits during precious downtime between missions.
“Rock of the Marne” soldiers took more than 15,000 college classes during fiscal 2007 while deployed to Iraq as part of the surge force, reported Pam King, post education officer. That trend continued as the soldiers began returning to Fort Stewart in March. They’ve racked up an additional 11,000 college classes during the first two quarters of this fiscal year, King said.
Robin Ellert, chief of the post’s online education program, pointed to the unmistakable trend in college enrollments, from 4,600 in fiscal 2003 to more than three times that level today.
“Our numbers have consistently jumped. There’s a clear upward trend in the number of enrollments we’re seeing,” she said.
“There’s a clear recognition that college is a way to get promoted — both in the military and outside the military,” she said.
And contrary to what some may expect, King said, many soldiers are finding deployments, when they’re away from their families and home, to be the best opportunity to take classes.
“Education is a wonderful distraction, in a positive sense,” she said. “Soldiers are able to — for a minute — escape where they are while doing something very positive for themselves, both mentally and for their career.”
Thanks to the GoArmyEd.com portal that went online in April 2006, educational services are just a few mouse clicks away. Soldiers at even the most remote outposts can log into the system, tap into the $4,500 in tuition assistance the Army offers every soldier every year, and work toward a degree at one of about 180 colleges, universities and technical schools represented.
Army Sgt. Anthony Wilfong, a platoon sergeant with 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, spent much of his downtime during his past deploying taking Army correspondence courses. All but four of his soldiers were signed up for some kind of classes during their 15 months in Iraq. “It beats the time you waste seeing the same movies over and over,” he said.
Wilfong and his soldiers have been back at Fort Stewart for about three months and still are awaiting their vehicles’ return. Meanwhile, they’re squeezing in all the classes they can.
“I’ve got 12 years to go to retirement, and each credit course is worth one and a half promotion points,” Wilfong said as he reviewed the offerings at Central Texas College. “I figure everything I take will help me in the long run.”
Meanwhile, many military families pass time during their loved ones’ deployments enrolled in college programs, too. Officials estimate close to 4,000 family members at Fort Stewart and nearby Hunter Army Airfield took classes through Army Continuing Education Services during fiscal 2007.
Many attend one of the five colleges represented at Fort Stewart: Savannah Technical College, Central Texas College, Columbia College, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Webster University.
“It gives them a great mental diversion,” King said. “Whether you’re talking about soldiers or their families, you know when you’re taking courses that you’re bettering yourself and bettering your career opportunities.”
The $10 million Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith Education Center, which opened its doors in December 2004 just outside the post’s front gate, sends an unmistakable message that Fort Stewart values education, King said.
Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the 3rd Infantry Division commander and a big fan of educational services, promoted the new center based on the “Field of Dreams” concept, King explained. “The way he saw it, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”
And to ensure soldiers do come, the Army Continuing Education Services staff distributes oversized paper checks at the start of every fiscal year for $4,500 to ensure soldiers don’t forget about their annual tuition assistance benefit. “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” King said. “We want to make sure soldiers know it’s available to them and encourage them to take advantage of it.”
As they build their credentials, King said, soldiers enrolled in educational programs also are building their combat readiness and adaptability for unpredictable environments like Iraq.
“You train for certainty, but you educate for uncertainty,” she said. “And regardless of what capabilities you have, the fact is, the brain is ultimately the most important battlefield weapon.”