How I Got My College Degree for Free

The Army National Guard Paid for It

Between the Army National Guard’s Federal tuition assistance, State tuition assistance, and GI Bill, Sergeant First Class (SFC) Ryan West earned his bachelor’s degree for free.

He estimates that between the special military rates offered by the schools he attended and the Guard’s education benefits, he has saved $30,000 to $40,000 in tuition and fees.

Without the Guard picking up the tab, SFC West’s other options to pay for school were using his GI Bill from his previous active duty service in the Army or student loans.

SFC Ryan West, a Medical Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard.

SFC Ryan West, a Medical Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard.

“I was raised in a single-parent home, there just wasn’t money for college,” he explains.

SFC West, a Medical Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard, has had a few stops and starts on his way to earning that degree. He had started college before joining the Army in 1998, but, “It didn’t work out for me. The money wasn’t there, plus I wasn’t that disciplined.”

So, he joined the military, something he had wanted to do since he was a child.

“I’m from a small town, Hopkins, South Carolina, so I wanted to get out and see the world, see new places, and meet new people,” says SFC West. “And, of course, defend my country. There’s nothing like it. You get a great reward from serving.”

After leaving active duty in 2002, SFC West wanted to continue his service, so he joined the Guard because he liked the idea of serving part-time, especially so he could go back to school.

But then he deployed to Iraq, which marked a complete turnaround in how he looked at his career.

“Prior to that, I was just a traditional Guardsman, just going through the motions, coming to drill. I didn’t really have aspirations of going higher in the ranks or being better than what I was.”

Experiencing what he did while deployed in Iraq as a 68W Healthcare Specialist (combat medic) – the inhumanity of war and even meeting new people from different places, made him realize he could reach higher.

It was after coming home that SFC West realized all of the Guard benefits he could use to complete his degree.

“You get funds from three different sources, which is great,” SFC West says. “You don’t get that in the Reserves, and you don’t get that in the regular Army.”

The Guard offers Federal tuition assistance. Plus, each State or Territory offers State tuition assistance, but note that each State or Territory has its own rules and policies. Finally, the GI Bill can pick up the tab for books, fees, or really anything. This money is a monthly expense allowance paid directly to the student, not the school.

 

SFC West and his family at his college graduation.

Armed with all of these financial resources and a renewed sense of purpose, SFC West re-started his studies at Limestone College in South Carolina, but then decided to take a full-time job with the Guard. As 2014 came into view, he decided to go back to school “to finish this thing before I retire,” finally earning his bachelor’s in organizational leadership from the University of South Carolina.

And, he might not be done using up all those education benefits. He still has some of his post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to transfer to his children, and he can still use the Guard’s tuition assistance to earn a master’s degree he’s thinking about getting.

His advice for anyone joining the Guard is: “Let the Guard get the most out of you, and you get the most out of the Guard.”

And that means taking advantage of all the opportunities it offers, including making the most of the education benefits.

“That paycheck means nothing if you stay five or six years and you don’t have a degree – a free degree,” he says.

So if you’re looking for a way to pay for college, or even vocational school, the Guard offers those benefits and more, like training in careers ranging from medicine and engineering to field artillery and logistics. You can explore all of the Guard’s career fields on our job board.

And, for personalized advice, including specifics on your State’s education benefits because the information varies from State to State, contact your local recruiter.

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The Ultimate Special Forces Soldier: Team Players with Brains and Brawn

All graduates of the Special Forces qualification course are military free-fall or HALO parachutists, while many others will receive follow-on training to become combat divers or proficient mountaineers, depending upon the type of team to which they are assigned.

All graduates of the Special Forces qualification course are military free-fall or HALO parachutists, while many others will receive follow-on training to become combat divers or proficient mountaineers, depending upon the type of team to which they are assigned.

If all you’ve ever wanted is to serve your country and join an elite team that carries out difficult and often dangerous missions by land, sea or air, the Army National Guard’s Special Forces could be for you.

But it’s definitely not for everyone.

You’ve got to be a top performer from a physical and mental standpoint, and you’re going to carry out missions that you cannot talk about. In fact, the Special Forces Soldier On Your Guard interviewed for this blog does not want to use his real name. We’ll call him Staff Sergeant (SSG) Jones, and with 6 years of experience as a Soldier, and 4 years as a Green Beret, he has more advice to share.

Having the right combination of smarts and physical endurance is “just enough to get you into the door. From there, you really have to have a burning desire to win and to achieve. But it’s tempered with the understanding that winning isn’t an individual event. It’s a team event.”     

The most important thing, he says, is the Soldier’s ability to work with others, especially in challenging environments.

“In order to function effectively as a team, you can’t be labeled as an individual. That just won’t work.”

SSG Jones took a roundabout route to joining his Special Forces Unit in Florida, enlisting at age 32 after selling a business he started. Having had no prior military experience, he enlisted as an 11B Infantryman under a contract called REP 63, which guaranteed him the right to try out for Special Forces. (You can read more about the process and requirements for non-prior military to join the Green Berets on our website).

Inspired to join the military in some capacity after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, SSG Jones, whose civilian career is in aerospace finance, researched other special operations branches in the military before landing on the U.S. Army Special Forces, and ultimately through the Guard.

“Rangers and Seals are primarily a direct action force,” he says. “So they’ll operate out of a base, go out and conduct a mission, such as a raid, and generally come back in a fairly short order.”

Special Forces, however, are trained to persist behind enemy lines. SSG Jones says his team will embed with indigenous forces and guerrillas in difficult environments to train them.

“We’ll work with the guerrillas and develop the battlefield ourselves, create our own mission sets and execute those missions,” he says. “There’s really no other Special Operations unit that can do quite what we do, spending months at a time embedded with these foreign organizations.”

To be able to communicate effectively, each Soldier is proficient in a foreign language. Part of the Special Forces qualification course is six months of intensive language training, where SSG Jones learned Arabic. Soldiers are also expected to maintain not only their language skills afterward, but their skills in general.

“We do a lot of follow-on training, so the training never really ends. The qualification course may end, but you’re really expected to build upon what you’ve learned.”

Even within the Green Berets there are different teams of 12, Operational Detachment Alpha, ODA’s or “A-teams” for short, and each Soldier within that ODA will have a specialty. SSG Jones, who serves on a dive team, is an 18C Special Forces Engineer Sergeant. These Soldiers excel at engineering tasks like demolition and construction in austere environments, while others specialize in intelligence, communications (from satellites to Morse code), medicine (trauma and general care), and weapons.

Check out this short video for a closer look at what Special Forces does.

Because part of the Guard’s mission is to serve the community, Special Forces can also be called up for stateside missions. The Green Berets are especially suited for the task because they are rapidly deployable, says SSG Jones. During a recent hurricane, some men on his team did search and rescue missions by boat.

And while SSG Jones can’t give specifics on his missions overseas, he can share, as an example of his team’s capabilities, that he completed a training mission that involved underwater infiltration of a military port where the team dove from a civilian fishing boat, set up demolition charges, and exited the area on a different fishing boat undetected in an area with heavy shipping lane traffic. Plus, the entire mission was conducted with a partner force in Arabic.

“It’s fun and it’s exciting,” he says, of his Special Forces work.

But it’s a serious job for dedicated Soldiers, so SSG Jones encourages anyone pursuing a green beret to “make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. I think Hollywood and video games have made special operations, in general, seem really sexy.”

In reality, the road to becoming a Green Beret is rough.

“Probably 90 percent of that road is being cold, wet, and miserable or utterly exhausted and sleep deprived, and on the verge of a heat injury,” says SSG Jones. “So for the Soldier who thinks it’s all about jumping out of airplanes, diving, shooting bad guys, and talking yourself up at a bar … it’s probably not the right profession for you.”

What Special Forces really needs, he says are “strong, tough, intelligent Soldiers who are willing to put the mission before themselves.”

So if you’re interested in joining a team that puts the mission of serving the country and community above all else, there are plenty of ways to do that in the Guard, where you’ll serve part-time. The Guard offers more than 150 careers, from infantry and armor and field artillery to engineering and transportation. You can check out all of the possibilities on our job board and be sure to take a look at the Guard’s outstanding benefits like money for college.

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Guard Helicopter Pilot: ‘The Sky Is Actually Not the Limit’

MCALLEN, Texas — In a small barbed-wire enclosed yard in Tamaulipas, Mexico, three hours south of the Texas-Mexico border, 6-year-old Liliana Chavez Uribe marveled at the sight of crop dusters flying over her home and dreamed that one day she, too, could fly.

A short 18 years later, Second Lieutenant (2LT) Liliana Chavez Uribe smiles as she recalls the memory that propelled her forward and ever upward.

“I grew up in a rural area where we didn’t have running water – we had wells,” 2LT Chavez, 24, says. “We had outhouses, so, no toilets, and the first time I saw a shower I was in second or third grade – I grew up in the projects.”

2LT Chavez, now an Aeromedical Evacuation Officer, 2nd Battalion, 149th Aviation Regiment, General Support Aviation Battalion, who flies Black Hawk and Lakota helicopters for the Texas Army National Guard, says her accomplishments are far beyond what her 6-year-old self could have imagined.

“I have been wanting to fly since the first time I saw an airplane, but I kind of put that dream aside, since I thought it was very competitive. It was like dreaming to be a movie star ­– you put it aside because you think it will never happen.”

Despite the obstacles she and her family endured as immigrants during their journey, 2LT Chavez realized her dreams were more of a reality than she thought.

“I came here as a permanent resident,” she says. “My dad worked his butt off to get us all here the correct, legal way, and now I am a citizen.”

It was during her high school years in Pharr, Texas, that 2LT Chavez discovered her love for the disciplined military structure when she joined the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.

She graduated fifth in her high school class with an associate degree under her belt and landed a two-year Texas Armed Services scholarship to the University of Texas Pan-American, where she joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and studied biology.

“In ROTC I got the opportunity to go up for the aviation board,” 2LT Chavez says. “I put in the packet, took a physical fitness test, went before a whole bunch of important people and was selected.”

She graduated flight school and Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training. SERE is a requirement for all pilots and U.S. Special Forces that tests participants’ mental and physical fortitude to prepare them to evade capture and survive extreme conditions and unforgiving elements.

Fighting ‘Lowest Moment’ with Laughter 

2LT Chavez says that SERE training was the most challenging experience she has faced in her life.

“My lowest moment (during the training), I can’t say it, but it was really, really low,” she says. “But I started laughing, even though there were tears coming out of my eyes. It was tough, but I always had a positive attitude. I tried to sing and make something positive out of a crappy situation.”

2LT Chavez credits her father’s work ethic as the reason she is so driven to overcome the multitude of challenges she faced during SERE training.

“My dad, he is really motivating. He works in construction, in roofing. He would come back home just burned and blistered – every day, non-stop, and he never complained.”

‘I Embrace Every Stereotype’ 

2LT Chavez remembers being one of three women, and the only Hispanic woman, in her flight school class.

“There is a challenge in being a Hispanic woman and being a minority – that’s two things,” she says. “But now, I think it’s a great thing, because we can actually go all the way to the top.”

The pilot says that she overcomes discrimination the same way that she conquered her challenges during SERE training – with a splash of humor.

“I just play along with it, and I say ‘so what? I don’t care, I’ll make you tacos right now,’” 2LT Chavez says. “I’ll prove a point, I’m Mexican, I’ll braid my hair. I embrace every stereotype, and I think that’s the way to do it instead of being thin-skinned.”

Regardless of all the obstacles she has faced, whether it was getting through college, financial setbacks, discrimination, or SERE, 2LT Chavez never saw failure as an option.

2LT Liliana Chavez Uribe

2LT Liliana Chavez Uribe, Texas Army National Guard

“My main drive was not to disappoint my father. I wanted to finish school and do amazing things for myself and him, also. I want to eventually pay him back for all he has done for us.”

2LT Chavez, a lean five-and-a-half-feet tall, walks ruler-straight and with purpose, radiating positivity while also having a steadfast command presence.

“The leader I hope to be – I expect to touch many, many lives,” she says. “I am already a joyful leader, always looking at the positive side. I am always smiling. I don’t want to be bitter. If you aren’t happy and have a moody face that is contagious.”

 ‘I Want to Fly it All’

When 2LT Chavez talks about her job and flying, her face lights up, and her voice exudes an energetic tone which proves that long after achieving her dream of flying, she is still filled with the same wonder and awe she had watching the crop dusters as a young girl.

“I want to fly a fixed wing. I want to fly it all (all aircraft),” she said.

The pilot reflected upon where she would be in life had her father not moved their family to the United States.

“I would be living a sad life, probably with like, five kids, not in school, not educated or maybe something even worse – just the way stuff is down there.”

Her father, Silvano Chavez, disagrees.

“If we hadn’t come here, nothing would be different,” Chavez said. “Liliana serves as an example that if you work hard and persevere you can get to where you want to be, and if Lily were in Mexico, she would move somewhere else and still succeed because that is the way she is.”

Many Dreams Left to Fulfill

Although she has reached what her family and many people would see as the pinnacle of success, 2LT Chavez says she still has many dreams to fulfill.

“My other plan is to go back to school for earth and coastal sciences, diving and studying earth forms. I want to be an astronaut, too, one day.”

Chavez has a message for other girls who have big “movie star dreams” like hers.

“I’d tell them don’t limit yourself, the sky is actually not the limit – you can be an astronaut if you want to.”

So, if you’re ready to test your limits, the Army National Guard offers plenty of options, right in your own community, where you’ll maintain your military training on a part-time basis. This flexibility gives you time to pursue a civilian career, too, which can be accomplished a lot easier when you take advantage of the Guard’s education benefits

Check out our job board, which can be searched by location or the type of career you’re interested in, from aviation to armor and field artillery, to military police, logistics support, and more. For personalized advice, contact your local recruiter.

From an original story by 1LT Nadine Wiley De Moura, 100th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, which appeared in the news section of NationalGuard.mil, in May 2018.

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