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 Honored for Tool Designed to Speed Up Response Times

ARLINGTON, Va. — The National Guard Bureau’s Joint Intelligence Directorate recently received an award for developing a program that gives Guard members and local authorities better situational awareness to speed up their response to emergencies, natural disasters, and large-scale events.

The Directorate was awarded the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s Government Achievement Award for its work on the Domestic Operations Awareness and Assessment Response Tool, or DAART, developed in partnership with the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command.

DAART is a web-based program that pulls together geospatial intelligence assets from a variety of sources, including terrain and mapping information from the U.S. Geologic Survey, as well as video feeds from overhead aircraft, and satellite imagery.

“The computing power we have and the ability to bring in information from all these disparate sources, you can really paint a picture for the commander,” said Thomas Merrill, head of National Guard Bureau’s Joint Intelligence Plans and Policy Branch.

The program, which debuted last year, stems from an earlier web-based system, but has added capabilities that provide users with close to real-time imagery, as well as interactive features that speed up communications between responding agencies.

“You’re bringing all sorts of information in, and it displays it geospatially,” said Merrill. “Any operation that you’re doing, you can see right now in either real-time or near real-time what’s going on.”

That gives Guard members the ability to respond faster in emergency situations, said Merrill. The program allows commanders to assess rapidly changing conditions, such as road closures in a large-scale flooding incident.

“[Those] who are responding, they’ll know which routes are still open and which ones to avoid,” Merrill said, adding that most people are saved within the first 72 hours after an emergency or catastrophic event occurs.

“The faster that we can get in there to get to people who are caught in voids or who are definitely in distress – the elderly or those who are isolated – the more people who can be saved,” he said.

DAART can be accessed not only by the Guard, but also by State and local authorities, or other responding agencies.

“It really highlights the Guard’s ability to harness technology at the most local level,” said Merrill. “It puts the Guard member at street level, if need be, along with the sheriff’s deputy or the local police, and they’re all looking at the same thing.”

Those capabilities speak to the Guard’s primary mission of serving the community.

DAART has already been used in a variety of missions, said Merrill, including the Presidential Inauguration in January and during last year’s wildfire response operations in California. During the wildfire response, it was instrumental in helping rescuers find a lost hiker.

Soldiers with the California Army National Guard’s 578th Brigade Engineer Battalion and 40th Brigade head out while responding to wildfires in July 2016. Last year’s California wildfire response saw one of the first uses of the Domestic Operations Awareness and Assessment Tool, or DAART, a web-based program that pulls together geospatial information from a variety of sources, including terrain and mapping data, video feeds from overhead aircraft, and satellite imagery.

“It was the first time it had been used to find a missing person,” said Merrill. “It helped rule out areas where she may have been. When they figured out where she was, they used the program to help vector in the search team, and she was saved.”

Merrill said he and his team are working on fine-tuning DAART and expanding its capabilities.

“It will save time, and it will save lives,” he said.

So, if you’re interested in working with, or even on, equipment to help your community in its time of need, consider joining the Army National Guard, where Soldiers serve part-time. The Guard offers training in more than 130 careers, described on our job board. And for more information about all the benefits that come with Guard service, like money for college, contact your local recruiter.

From an original story by SFC Jon Soucy, National Guard Bureau, which originally appeared in the news section of NationalGuard.mil in June 2017.

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