Military Education Deployed
By Teri Weaver
BAGHDAD - First Sgt. Delmer Traylor wants his soldiers to go to college, even when they are at war.
The soldiers of 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment patrol the interior and exterior of Camp Liberty in Baghdad. Their job is to gather intelligence and look for insurgent behavior on and off the base to keep thousands of other soldiers safe.
But when the battalion's soldiers roll back in after long, sweaty days, Traylor, 38, of Aurora, Colo., wants them to hit the books.
"I'm encouraging everyone to get some type of degree," said Traylor, the first sergeant for the battalion's headquarters battery. Nine months into their 15-month deployment, it's working. He says about 20 percent of the battery's 200 members are taking some sort of college class.Traylor himself is working toward a bachelor's degree and as of late May was taking three classes. "I can preach going to school," he said. "But if I don't do it, too, then how can I ask them?"
Traylor isn't the only one. Servicemembers across Iraq are using their down time at war to earn associate, bachelor's and even law degrees. Some use the military's education program and work through Troy University or the University of Maryland, two schools that have long-established college programs in military bases abroad.
Some are doing it independent of the military, using their GI Bill benefits to pay for online classes that cater to part-time students.
As they work through textbooks and lessons, they get advice and tutoring from fellow soldiers and officers. Artillery officers help soldiers with math. Lawyers share study guides with future lawyers. Traylor even set up a special section inside his battalion's Internet cafe so that the college students could have unlimited computer access without taking time away from others sending messages back home.
But studying at war is complicated, and it doesn't work for everybody. Most soldiers say that those with jobs in headquarter offices with air conditioning and Internet access fare best. Those with ever-changing patrol schedules are too busy and too beat to study.
Even the rules of the online schools themselves can put added pressure on an American college student in Iraq.
Sgt. 1st Class Terry Stringfellow, 41, of Gibson, Iowa, is studying for his first-year law exam. So far, the platoon medic for the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment in Iskandariyah has been through two years of online study with Concord University, a California-based law school set up for Internet students.
The classes with Concord stretch for four years, instead of the traditional three years for a law degree. California is the only state that recognizes the law school, and eligibility for its bar exam requires passing a first- year test, given twice a year.
Stringfellow is using his leave in June to take the test. He feels prepared for the written portion but is worried about the multiple choice questions. He's also worried about the travel. His leave starts June 20, and the test is June 26. Flying in and out of Iraq is never guaranteed, he said.
Others catch study time when they can.Staff Sgt. Edward Wilhelm, 29, of Kennesaw, Ga., is a chaplain's assistant based at Forward Operating Base Kalsu with the 4th Brigade Combat Team Airborne, 25th Infantry Division. On weekends, he routinely flies to nearby FOB Iskandariyah. He carries his physical science book in his rucksack.
One of the hardest parts, Wilhelm and others say, is the lack of discussion time with the professors.
"It makes it difficult," he said as he studied at the combined chapel and coffee tent at Iskandariyah just after lunch on June 4. "You can ask a question anytime, but you have to wait for an answer."
The soldiers say their online professors are patient and helpful, and they extend deadlines for assignments if needed. But it doesn't always work out in the end.
Spc. Steve Toth, 22, of Tarentun, Pa., took a pre-calculus class a few months ago. It was hard, but as a member of the 1st Battalion, 7th Artillery Field Regiment, he could get help from senior soldiers and officers. In the end, however, the school never sent him the final exam.
He decided to take an incomplete and retake the class at home when he gets out of the Army and works toward learning about real estate appraisals.
This is Toth's second deployment, working as a radio operator in the headquarters office on Camp Liberty. During his first stint in Iraq, he was on patrols. "The people who have patrols, I don't see how it would be possible" to go to school.
But Traylor believes it is. He works and patrols most days, studies for a few hours most nights. The biggest sacrifice, he admits, is sleep. "I'll sleep when I retire," said the 18-year veteran, who is planning on staying in for a few more years.
Traylor's got something else to look forward to well before retirement comes. If everything goes right, he'll leave Iraq in about six months as a college graduate.
Sound Off...What do you think? Join the discussion...