The Military Student at Temple – One View

by Grant Weller, Major, U.S. Air Force


I am representative of a somewhat unusual breed, the many military students who pass through Temple’s Department of History on their way to M.A. or Ph.D. degrees. This seemingly uniform population is actually quite diverse, so I will venture a few observations based on my own experiences which may or may not be generally true.

Some members of the military who come to Temple do so on their own. Members of the National Guard or Reserves or active duty military stationed nearby (McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, or Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania for example) can enroll in a degree program in their off-duty time. The military services often defray or fully pay the costs of such programs, but provide no time off. These military members’ experiences closely resemble those of civilian students who work outside of academia, as they must balance the demands of school, work, and family. They do face the additional possibility of deployment overseas or a short-notice PCS (Permanent Change of Station – a transfer) away from contact with Temple. In these cases, they must negotiate a leave of absence with Temple and their professors, or complete their degrees from a distance.

These military men and women pursue advanced degrees for their own reasons. While the military may provide financial assistance, and may put those degrees to use once earned, the military services do not plan such education into their force structure. These students’ advanced education is not directly related to their military assignments.

In this manner, I went through my M.A. program at the University of North Dakota from 1994 to 1998 while stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base. The Air Force paid for my tuition as a benefit, but did not give me time off for classes or concern itself with my program of study. I did my best to schedule classes around my duty days, but had to accept a less than stellar attendance record. Fortunately, my professors had experience with military students and allowed me to make up missed classes by attending office hours and doing extra reading. My duties as an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) combat crew commander, or missileer, included twenty-four hour alerts deep beneath the North Dakota prairie. On the sometimes quiet alerts, I had lots of time to read – a boon for any student! After completing both my degree and my four-year tour at Grand Forks, I applied for a position as an Instructor of History at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. As I had completed the required educational program, an MA in history, and I performed well during my interview and sample lesson, the Department of History (DFH) accepted me and I PCS’d to Colorado.

While teaching in DFH, I learned about another way military members earn advanced degrees. All the armed services recognize the need for advanced academic education to fill certain specific positions in their force structures. Military doctors and lawyers are only the most common of these positions. The services have requirements for persons holding advanced academic degrees in a wide variety of disciplines, including history. DFH employs not only instructors holding master’s degrees, but also more senior faculty members holding doctorates. During my first tour in DFH, I competed for and won a chance to earn a doctorate and come back to DFH for another teaching assignment.

Accepting the Ph.D. opportunity entailed closing off other options. Officers teaching at the Academy retain their original career fields. Their academic positions are known as “career broadening” assignments, outside the normal progression, to which they return after teaching. In theory, such assignments have no adverse impact on an officer’s career. In reality, those who spend too much time outside their “normal” career paths usually don’t compete as well for command positions. Their peers have more experience in the field. In my case, I have served thirteen years on active duty: six years in space and missile operations, and nearly seven in teaching or student positions. When I complete my second USAFA tour, I will have seventeen years of active duty service (three short of retirement eligibility): six years in space and missile operations, and almost eleven in teaching or student positions. Meanwhile, those of my peers who remained in space and missile operations have accumulated seventeen years of experience in operational and staff positions, making them far more competitive for top command billets.

The picture is not all bleak. Experience in career broadening assignments, especially those requiring an advanced degree, opens other doors which might otherwise remain closed. These positions include service on the faculty of the war colleges, doctrinal development, and foreign area expert billets. Some officers make USAFA a sort of revolving door, alternating teaching assignments with “re-blueing” tours in their original career field. While the traditional path to military success follows successively higher levels of command to a general’s stars, other paths can be as or more rewarding for the right officers.

Once a military service identifies a position requiring an advanced degree, it determines the most cost-efficient way to educate military members to meet that requirement. In cases where the service needs a substantial number of positions filled, the service may create its own program to provide the needed education. The Air Force needs many meteorologists, and so provides advanced education in meteorology at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. In cases where positions require education not readily available in academia, the service may establish its own program. AFIT offers a degree in nuclear engineering which emphasizes nuclear weapons effects, nuclear detection, and nuclear explosives, rather than power plant design and operation. When the number of positions to be filled is relatively small, however, and the civilian academic community provides the required degrees, the service “out-sources” the educational program.

In the case of the Air Force, AFIT manages hundreds of students at dozens of universities and colleges across America and around the world. These students, including me, once DFH selected me for the program, apply to a civilian school, get accepted, and then PCS to the school’s location to begin work. AFIT students remain on active duty, entitled to all the benefits and subject to all the restrictions of military life.

Military students remain full-time employees of the U.S. government, who simply happen to be assigned to go get a degree – truly professional students. During my three years at Temple, I received my full salary (including a pay raise when I was promoted), an allowance for subsistence, and a housing allowance based on the ZIP code to which I was assigned (19022). As I was stationed in a metropolitan area with a relatively high cost of living, I received a COLA (cost of living allowance). I was also eligible for reimbursement for my SEPTA tickets, as part of a government program to encourage federal employees to use mass transit. The military also continued to provide medical care for me and my family.

I also had to maintain all Air Force standards. I had to complete an annual physical fitness test. (For the Air Force, this includes pushups, situps, waist measurement, and a 1.5 mile run). I had to remain current on periodic and special military training, such as refresher training on the Law of Armed Conflict or a recently introduced training program to enable military members to spot and report incidents of trafficking in persons. I carried out the majority of these requirements in conjunction with the local Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) detachment at Saint Joseph’s University. (AFIT supervises all Air Force students at civilian schools, but delegates everything except control over academic programs to the nearest Air Force organization, be it a base or AFROTC detachment.)

Being a military student meant I did not have complete freedom to pursue my own academic interests. The Air Force sent me to Temple because it had a position in DFH requiring an officer with a Ph.D. in history, and it determined I was best qualified to earn a degree and fill that position. Therefore, DFH had an interest in my coursework and dissertation. I developed my course of study in conjunction with DFH to ensure I would be prepared to teach the courses they needed taught. In my case, DFH asked me to pursue a program which would enable me to teach the world history survey, military history survey, American history survey, European history survey, Russian history survey, American diplomatic history, and a variety of general military history courses.

AFIT also provided a limited budget for research trips. I was able to travel TDY (temporary duty) to Fort Lee, Virginia; Fort Eustis, Virginia; and the National Archives branch at College Park, Maryland to research my dissertation. That meant AFIT paid my travel and hotel expenses. Had I required further archival visits, I would have had to pay for them myself, as the budget for my program was exhausted by those trips.

As a military student, I had the advantage of being a professional student, paid to study, without the need to spend time as a TA or RA or work an outside job to pay the bills. This status, however, lasted only three years. After three years, I PCS’d to Colorado Springs to take up my duties as Assistant Professor of History. As I had not defended my dissertation at the end of three years, I must now complete the dissertation off-duty. I am making good progress, but most of my readers know how difficult it is to balance teaching and writing. I hope to be listed among those having successfully defended by the next issue!

My position as an AFIT student also affected my choice of dissertation topics. With only three years to complete my full degree, classes, exams, and dissertation, I had to choose a topic I could reasonably tackle in three years. My study of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps’ experience with motor trucks prior to and during World War II seemed like a good choice because the archival resources were within driving distance, and the archivists were supportive. Also, as my M.A. thesis from the University of North Dakota had covered the activities of one Quartermaster Truck Company, I had already done some of the preliminary reading. That saved time, though not quite enough.

Being a full-time military student means keeping a foot in two worlds: the military and academia. It means sometimes translating TLA (three letter acronym) military-speak to the Temple Bursar, begging the history department to leave a course on the schedule when it would be easier to drop it back a semester (thank you Professor Immerman), adding an independent reading course to help speed through the program (thank you Professor Urwin), creating a summer reading seminar (thank you Professor Lockenour), or even asking one of your field supervisors to give your oral Preliminary Examination via speaker phone (thank you Professor Zubok). Most of all, it means establishing a relationship with a department and a faculty that can respect the unique needs of an individual student. Perhaps, because we all come to Temple with different needs, ambitions, and resources, the military student is not so unusual after all.