Airman's career, life enriched by enlisting

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- I've been in the Air Force less than three years, and I've already lost count of how many times someone has asked me why I enlisted over commissioning. "You already have a bachelor's degree," they'd say. "Don't you want to make more money?" or "Your recruiter obviously pulled a number on you!"

I had my reasons and would explain them whenever asked. Even though roughly 10 percent of our enlisted force has a college degree, some people still seemed perplexed that I only wear my current rank. While I can't speak for other Airmen, I'd like to share an experience of why enlisting was the right decision for me.

One of the happiest days of my Air Force career occurred in September 2009 when I walked into the Hurlburt Field Education Center. The stop is a routine part of the Commando Pride Airman Center's tour for Airmen arriving at their first duty station after technical school.

I had been in the Air Force for more than six months and had vague ideas about the changes to the Montgomery and Post 9/11 GI Bills. Not only did personnel explain those programs, they showed me how many more educational opportunities the Air Force has to offer. Items such as tuition assistance, certification programs and computer testing for college credits were now options that could be considered throughout my career.

At first, I was unaware of the Community College of the Air Force's degree program enabling Airmen to receive an associate's degree within their respective career fields. Angela Maberry, one of the guidance counselors, assisted me with a plan to earn mine before attending Airman Leadership School. Although completing my CCAF came after taking courses through the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School, gaining my 5-level certification and taking a College Level Examination Program test, Maberry and the team helped me achieve this goal less than two years after joining.

And it didn't stop there. Even after finishing college in August 2008, I always felt graduate school would be far out of my reach. I knew how the Air Force could help me achieve a master's degree, but I never knew how quickly and conveniently I'd be able to do so here.

Kelly Gaskell of the University of Oklahoma's outreach office helped me enroll in their international relations program. I took all my courses taught by university professors on base as opposed to taking classes online. Within 15 months of starting, I received my masters degree in international relations, an achievement I never thought possible just three years ago.

In writing this, I don't pretend that my situation is identical to all my fellow first-term Airmen. I'm well aware not everyone will be able to complete such programs to the same manner that I did. Regardless of our end results, our access to those educational opportunities is equal. I have as much of a chance to further my education as anyone else who joined before or after I did.

I even attended the Commencement and Convocation ceremonies at OU's Main Campus in Norman, Okla., May 13-14. Robert Gates, then-Secretary of Defense, served as the commencement speaker and addressed attendees on the importance of continuing our academic pursuits as a means of bettering our world and future. He also described looking after and guiding service members as his greatest honor since entering public service four decades ago.

"Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of young Americans in uniform have volunteered to put their lives on the line to defend us, to set aside their dreams so you can fulfill your dreams," Gates said. "They fight to protect the freedoms and opportunities that all Americans enjoy... freedoms and opportunities that can take any one of you wherever you choose to go."

The full effect of his words was not lost on me as both a member of the Armed Forces and the audience. For me, hearing them from the then-Secretary of Defense signified how far I had come since graduating college and enlisting in the Air Force. Although it had only been three years, I felt I had grown a lot. I also felt I contributed more to my country as both an Airman and a graduate student, and thankfully both had not been mutually exclusive. In addition to all of this, it was an honor to have my service and rank announced before my name as I accepted my diploma in front of my family.

My college career may have started Aug. 23, 2003, but I recognize it took my experiences as a civilian and service member to complete it. I also wouldn't have been able to move forward had it not been for the support the military provided to me and the guidance I received from the OU office and education center staff. 
 
I'm convinced that had I remained a civilian, I may have gone deep into debt to pursue this degree. And had I commissioned, I certainly would not have had the time to finish this degree as early as I did.  After it all, I'd never put a price tag or a certifying piece of paper on what I've learned inside and outside of the classroom and from what I've experienced as an enlisted Airman in the Air Force today.