When I joined the Army back in 1994, I never expected it to be a long-term commitment. When I was first called by the recruiter I had long purple hair and was enjoying my now-extinct, minimum wage job at Blockbuster Music in San Antonio. My sister had given them my name after feeling bad for backing out of her decision to join. When the recruiter called me, I told him I wasn’t interested. He asked me what I was doing with my life and what my interests were.
Now, I was making great money as a DJ prior to moving back to Texas after I graduated from high school in Japan. In fact, I was making about $50 per hour DJing clubs oversees. When my dad moved to Jacksonville, Florida, I began DJing weddings and made even more money – upwards of $150 per hour. However, I hated having to deal with the Momzillas and Bridezillas. No amount of money was worth that. So, I moved back to my home state of Texas and found another job where I could be around the music I loved.
While the recruiter was talking to me, I realized I had no real direction in my life. But, I didn’t really see myself doing well under the strict, authoritarian requirements of military service. After some prodding, I agreed to take the ASVAB, but only on the condition they come to me with it. Apparently, he had to get special permission to do it that way. I ended up scoring really high on the general technical (GT), electronics (EL), surveillance and communications (SC) and skilled technical (ST) portions of the test, but I didn’t like any of the jobs that opened up to me but one – military police.
While I attended high school in Jacksonville (Nathan Bedford Forrest High School), I qualified to attend a technical school for half a day and high school the other half. It was a school that helped earn dual credit for college. I chose to study criminal justice and really liked. I placed 1st in plaster casting and fingerprinting at the state level VICA competitions and 2nd in extemporaneous speaking. I was also an Explorer and got to do fun events with law enforcement. I wanted to be a cop one day and help catch bad guys while serving the community. At the time, we did a lot of community engagement and policing. We would stop and join a water balloon fig,ht or help catch a dog that got loose. It was awesome.
Unfortunately, in order to become an MP at the time, I had to be 5’7″ and I was 5’5″!! I wasn’t happy about that because there wasn’t a height requirement for women! So, I told him I wasn’t interested in joining the Army. He said there was another possibility based on my scores if I was interested, but it required another test that I would have to take in a testing center. He said there are a lot more options available if you do well. The test was called the Defense Language Aptitude Battery.
The DLAB is by far the craziest test I’ve ever had to take. It consisted of a fake language, but was based on a set of rules. I can’t remember how long we had, but we had to memorize the rules of this fictitious language within a set amount of time. Since it’s a fake test, it’s not designed to test how well you know a language, but your ability to learn one. There were over 125 audio and visual questions based on the rules given. Depending on your score, you qualified for various levels of languages. For example, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese are a few Level I languages that require a score of 95 or higher. Level IV languages are the toughest to learn and require a score of 110 or higher and includes Arabic, Chinese, and Korean, among others. The max score is 164 (I had to look that up). I scored a 118.
Because I had passed the test and done well, a plethora of jobs opened up in the intelligence field. I was particularly interested in Signals Intelligence and decided to sign up. Because my training was two years long, I signed up for an initial six year. Turns out, I was pretty good at being a Soldier. I was an expert shot on every firearm platform I qualified on, plus LAW and grenade. Drill & Ceremony came easily since I was a JROTC cadet during my senior year of high school in Japan. I loved reading and quickly memorized many army regulations that helped me succeed and get promoted quickly. By the time my first enlistment ended, I was a Staff Sergeant. I realized that I really loved the tactical aspects of SIGINT, but having done some missions in S. America, I wasn’t excited about going to a strategic unit – a necessity if I wanted to make Sergeant First Class. After the USS Cole bombing in 2000, I decided to branch over to become counterintelligence special agent in the hopes of making an impact against terrorism. Next thing I know, over 20 years had gone by and I needed to retire.
Because I was promoted so quickly, I didn’t have a lot of time to take college classes. I spent most of my time reading army manuals to be a better leader and Soldier. I took a class here and there, but I focused more on pushing my junior Soldiers to take courses to help them get promoted. I didn’t need the points from civilian education because I had maxed out my military education, awards and commander’s recommendation points. Plus, I had already been Soldier of the Month and Quarter several times, which helped my appearance before the board.
Near the end of my career, I started going to job fairs. There were a lot of great companies I looked into. I began meeting with corporate recruiters who welcomed my experience as a great fit for the position. However, when they asked where I went to school and what my degree was in, I had to admit I didn’t have a degree. In spite of being a well-qualified candidate, I wasn’t “eligible” for the job because I didn’t have a piece of paper that somehow made my intelligence official.
I know many of my predecessors who retired or left military service who waited too long to use their GI Bill benefits to get a “free” education (there’s a 10-year statute of limitations) and I wasn’t about to let that happen. I had a LOT of leave set up and had already turned over most of my duties a couple of months prior to start of my leave so I asked my command if I could start going to college during the fall semester of 2014 and they approved. Thankfully, my attendance at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center earned me a ton of college credits.
George Bush signed into law the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Under the old GI Bill, all expenses related to school had to paid for out of the $1700 each month while in school full time. Depending on the school, this didn’t go very far. The Post 9/11 GI Bill pays all tuition and fees directly to the school, plus the veteran gets up to $1000 for books. The new benefit also paid a monthly housing allowance to help offset the costs of being a fulltime student. This was very helpful considering that I had gained a family over 20 years the money helped offset some of my retirement so that I could focus on my education instead of worrying about needing a job. When I joined, I had to pay $100 for 12 months to qualify for the GI Bill. That’s a lot of money for a private, but my drill sergeants strongly encouraged us to do it anyway. That went away with the Post 9/11 GI Bill.
I was pleasantly surprised at how efficient the transition was. Most school have a Veterans Assistance office to help veterans use their benefits. The hardest part I found was the paperwork, application and registration to the school, and choosing a degree plan. The VA helped every step along the way. They government will only pay for classes that are in line with the degree plan, so veterans can’t just take easy classes for the hell of it. There is also a GPA standard students have to meet to get their benefits, though it’s admittedly not a very high standard in my opinion.
It’s been a challenge to retrain my brain back into study mode, especially for my math classes, but I’ve actually learned a lot. I’ve also had to endure some of the liberal biases, which I unapologetically challenged. Much to my surprise, I still did well, maintaining a 3.9 GPA. My sociology teach docked me a grade for missing too many classes during the legislative session even though I got A’s on all my homework and tests.
I can’t recommend that veterans take advantage of this valuable benefit instead of letting it lapse. The benefits of having a degree in the civilian world – though I adamantly disagree with this thinking – is immeasurable and could mean the difference between a potentially stagnant life and a potentially rewarding one. This is especially important for those jobs – like many combat arms fields – that don’t translate well in the real world unless you have extensive leadership experience. It’s a benefit that our country felt we earned, so use it! It’s not difficult at all and there are plenty of people to help with every step of the process.