Balancing schoolwork with military responsibilities
With the U.S. fighting multiple wars on multiple fronts as well as broad federal budget cuts that directly affect the military, coupled with a difficult civilian employment environment once soldiers get out, the men and women of today’s military have challenging lives under any circumstances. Add pursuing higher education to the mix, and those challenges might seem insurmountable. But two current University of Phoenix military students are proving otherwise.
Sgt. First Class Ted Maust balances the challenges of higher education with active duty in multiple combat theaters, something he acknowledges is a challenge. Sgt. Maust has served five rotations (that’s five years) in active combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously pursuing associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in psychology and criminal justice at University of Phoenix. “It’s very stressful,” he says.
Sgt. Maust supervises a large unit of active-duty soldiers in combat missions. Currently back in the States between rotations as he continues his studies, Sgt. Maust says that while he was overseas, he didn’t just have to think about his assignments when he was studying, he had to think about his men — and most of all about the enemy. “You always have to remember that the enemy has a vote,” he says. “They view us as cops in the theater, and they attack the cop. Working on the degree over there was an added stress, it put one more iron in the fire for me. And I already had a lot of irons in the fire.”
Indeed he did. Even after five years of active combat duty, Sgt. Maust stresses that no single day in the battlefield is like the next. “I’m a platoon sergeant in an infantry rifle platoon based in Ft. Campbell, Ky.,” he says. “I just returned from Afghanistan where I had 38 soldiers under me, and we conducted combat ops daily. Logistics and combat — we were constantly moving, day or night.”
Sgt. Maust developed an interest in psychology and criminal justice based in part on his 21 years’ experience of active duty in the U.S. Army. “I’ve used a lot of what I’ve learned about psychology in active duty, with my men and understanding the enemy,” he says. “Getting the degrees while on active duty leads to a lot of short nights and long days. I have a lot to worry about. I worry about taking care of my men, and also do my schoolwork. It can be hard to take a class when you’re moving your unit across a combat zone. It’s not easy to deal with sometimes.”
How does Sgt. Maust manage to juggle so many responsibilities? “I try to do different things,” he says. “I talk and socialize with people, I work out with weights. Everybody has multiple ways of dealing with stress. It really depends on the individual.”
What advice does Sgt. Maust offer to his fellow soldiers who might be considering higher education while still on active duty? “If you’re able to do it, great,” he says. “Do what you can. Just watch how many irons you have in the fire, make sure you sleep, and take care of your responsibilities first. Get your guys back to their loved ones safe. That’s always got to be your first priority.”
Another soldier juggling multiple responsibilities along with higher education is Staff Sergeant Jeffrey Scott Niles. Currently an active Army reservist based in Fayetteville, N.C., Sgt. Niles is coming off six years on active duty (prior to that, he was in the Army reserves for three years), where he did stints in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. Sgt. Niles is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology at University of Phoenix while he transitions back to civilian life.
Sgt. Niles’ military experiences led directly to his interest in psychology. “There’s a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the military, especially among the younger soldiers,” he says. “The younger soldiers, age 18 to 21 or so, seem to get it a lot more than the more seasoned ones do. I wanted to explore the reasons behind that. I think it has something to do with brain development as you get older.”
Another factor that influenced Sgt. Niles to pursue his degree is the difficult civilian employment environment given today’s tough economy. “Other than my Army Reserve duty, I’m currently an unemployed veteran, and that’s a struggle,” he says. “Unemployment is very high among our veterans now, and it’s a real problem. It’s hard in our economy right now.”
Sgt. Niles explains that while the skills and training he received doing logistics and troop-movement management in Iraq and Afghanistan were valuable, they’re not easily transferable to the civilian world. “There’s a lot of software programs and procedures in the military in terms of supply-chain management that are completely different from those used in the civilian world,” he explains. “That has made it hard for me to pursue a career in civilian logistics despite my military experience in it. The civilian job market is really cutthroat, it’s so competitive. You need a degree to even be considered.”
While he’s currently pursuing his degree to improve his civilian job prospects, Sgt. Niles is also considering returning to full-time active military duty once he graduates. “I might possibly go into a master’s degree course, and use that to help me rejoin the Army as an officer with a direct commission,” he says. Currently Sgt. Niles is seeking full-time employment while also juggling both his studies and his Army Reserve duties. “When I’m out for my Reserve duty weekend, it can make getting assignments done pretty hard. I really have to bust my butt to make class deadlines those weeks.”
Sgt. Niles doesn’t mince words when it comes to the importance of today’s soldiers pursuing higher education. “The GI Bill is out there, so use it,” he says. “Not many military people are getting degrees these days, and they should. The civilian job market is tough.”
As they pursue higher education at institutions like University of Phoenix, military students can also reach out to a number of support organizations, both military-run and private, that assist active-duty soldiers in managing their lives and responsibilities. They include: