From combat to course work:

Our soldier students around the globe

by Brent Wooten

James "J.D." Anttonen checked his watch and noted the time. He was under a tight deadline with just a half-hour to proofread an assignment and e-mail it to his instructor. No, he wasn't late for work or a family engagement, and he wasn't trying to wrap up homework so he could watch the latest episode of "CSI." Anttonen, a mortar platoon sergeant in the U.S. Army, checked his watch to track how many minutes of Internet access he still had. For the last year, he has lived in a military outpost in northern Afghanistan while pursuing his bachelor's degree online with Saint Joseph's College. Web access comes from a satellite feed he gets about 30 minutes a day, if "the weather is good and the generators are running."

Access to regular "snail mail" isn't much better. He told his instructor, Barbara Plungis, that mail delivery to his remote location is both random and rare. "We get a delivery about once a month, and my textbook has still not arrived," he explained. "We have a 4,000-pound mail drop tomorrow, and I am keeping my fingers crossed," he wrote.

Anttonen's situation is common for many deployed students. When out on a mission, Sgt. 1st Class Lance Stenfeldt of the U.S. Army takes along his textbook and a note pad so he can do class work when he has the chance. "I only have what I can carry on my back - no Internet, no resources," he says. When he returns from a mission, Stenfeldt types up the class work and sends it in. He finds it a welcome outlet as he copes with both the stress of enemy fire and being away from his wife and three children.

Approximately 10 percent of the students within the Graduate & Professional Studies division at Saint Joseph's are active or retired military. These 255 students take advantage of educational programs sponsored by the military. The most-used program at Saint Joseph's College is eArmyU/GoArmyEd, launched in January 2001, when approximately 25 colleges and universities, including Saint Joseph's, partnered with the Army, software companies, and computer hardware distributors to offer online programs and laptops to soldiers. The emphasis of the program then and now is accessibility, variety of programs and quality.

According to the eArmyU web site, more than 32,000 soldiers participate in this program from 50 countries, four U.S. territories, and all 50 states. To date, more than 5,300 eArmyU soldiers have earned their degrees through the program.

Although Saint Joseph's involvement with eArmyU/GoArmyEd is relatively new, its dedication to soldier students is not. The college has educated military students for more than 30 years, primarily through its distance education programs. Its participation in the Servicemember's Opportunity Colleges (SOC) network allows for college course transfer credit to move easily between other SOC schools and Saint Joseph's College, providing military students with a fast and flexible path to quality education.

David McCall, an academic advisor to the soldiers in the Army program, says contact with them is the most rewarding aspect of his job, because they constantly inspire him. "I'm in awe of what they're able to accomplish under incredible circumstances," he says. "One soldier in Iraq reported that he had trouble completing his final, because he came under mortar fire while taking the test!"

Faculty member Plungis says she loves working with military students - whether they are deployed or not - and admires their determination to get an education while serving. Many of her students are or were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. "They have daily difficulties that we can't even imagine," she says. "They often share their experiences with me ... somehow, some way, with the help of our college and the military, they get the job done."

One of the obstacles military students face is having to move often. They can be in the middle of a course when they get deployed. Even if they're not deployed, they often have to pick up their lives and pack up their houses for a move to a distant base. (Though military students face a 15-week course deadline, the college often accommodates their schedules with extensions as needed.) Over the past six years, Stenfeldt's unit, now at Fort Drum in New York, has seen tours in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. Later this year, he'll return to Iraq and continue working on his bachelor's degree in health administration there.

Master Sgt. Romano Kidd, U.S. Marines, is finishing his master's degree in pastoral theology. He is stationed in Jacksonville, N.C., recently served in Iraq as an air traffic controller and is now headed to Japan for a three-year tour. He says there is no such thing as a typical day in the Marine Corps. "Each day has its own unique challenges, as I am a manager of over 70 Marines," he says. He considers himself fortunate to have been based at a location with regular uninterrupted Internet capability, allowing him to continue his studies while deployed for seven months in Iraq.

Routine days are also foreign to Staff Sgt. Victoria Barnosky, who is assigned to Ibn Sina hospital in Baghdad. "Completing my master's degree in an environment such as this has been more challenging than I imagined. Every day we treat casualties, from U.S. military, coalition forces, Iraqi forces, civilians and even insurgents."

Although violence in the area dictates the number of patients, the hospital has been called the world's busiest trauma center. Locally, it's known as the Baghdad ER. Rocket or mortar attacks on the facility are not unheard of.

Despite problems such as these, Barnosky is quick to add her appreciation for her situation, "I don't want to complain. There are many other soldiers who are not able to continue classes while over here, because they don't have the benefits that we medical units have." (Units stationed in Baghdad often have more consistent web access, for example.)

Stenfeldt appreciates the support he receives from Saint Joseph's. "If it weren't for the flexibility, understanding and support of the college instructors, I would not have been successful. The professional staff and I would keep communications open through e-mail, and they always answered questions and worked with me."

Having taught many military students, Plungis says Saint Joseph's instructors and academic advisors immediately work on developing friendly, caring relationships with soldiers, who may feel lonely and isolated. "The military students ... often don't have family, friends, or instructors nearby, so they have a hard time getting started in their studies," she says.

McCall agrees. "This is a very trying time for our military students," he says. "We're all aware of the tremendous sacrifice they make, especially as many of them have been deployed several times."

Meanwhile, Sgt. 1st Class Anttonen lacks only a few more courses before he earns his health care administration degree. "With our Army's operational tempo, taking traditional classes is just not possible. Sometimes the rigors of combat prevent time to study. My unit spent all of August 2007 fighting in the Nuristan province."

Through his course work, Anttonen says he's been able to pursue his goal for when he retires from the Army next year. His plans? Join the Las Vegas Metro Police Force and become an administrator for the CSI unit.

Good luck, Sgt. Anttonen, and Godspeed to all military students everywhere.

• Saint Joseph's educational programs for military students include: eArmyU/GoArmyEd (www.earmyu.com); Navy Partners (https://www.navycollege.navy.mil); and Troops to Teachers (http://www.nnettt.org/)