Hitting the books in Iraq’s war zone

CHICAGO (MCT) – Jared Perry was headed toward a college degree when a military call-up to Iraq interrupted his junior year.

“I figured my education would be set back,” said Perry, who was part of the Illinois National Guard’s 1544th Transportation Company. “After all, you can’t be thousands of miles away in war and still go to school.”

Then he found a way.

Within months of landing in Baghdad in 2004, Perry, a specialist in the U.S. Army, was taking online classes from the University of Illinois at Springfield – the same classes he would have taken if he had stayed at home.

When he was not dodging bombs and insurgents’ sniping as an Army grunt on convoy missions in Iraq, Perry was sitting at a computer screen in his military barracks, doing homework for courses such as executive decision-making.

As the war in Iraq drags on, lengthening military deployments, American soldiers are increasingly turning to the Internet to continue their education, from independent study by e-mail to enrolling with huge online universities.

“Here you have education reaching into the heart of a war zone,” said Raymond Schroeder, who directs online learning on the Springfield campus and was in e-mail contact with Perry. “He was in touch with his classmates, and that was an important source of learning for both of them.”

Perry returned to his home in Decatur, Ill., from Iraq in 2005. Since then, virtual learning in the war zone has become as much a staple of duty as the chow line.

Recognizing the lucrative market, universities and colleges are gobbling up online soldiers.

The military not only encourages online study, but it pays for it through the GI Bill.

Firm enrollment numbers are not available – most schools don’t track where their online students do their work.

The Springfield campus believes it is naturally attractive to military students because it has an aggressive online program. Some 46 percent of its 4,700-plus total students are enrolled in at least one remote class.

Nationally, two for-profit online education firms enroll at least 12,000 soldiers.

Some 60,000 enlisted men and women take Pentagon-linked courses where the government contracts with educators. The numbers are rising fast, according to military officials and online learning centers.

With units getting advance notice of second and third deployments, more soldiers will be able to plan and schedule their online coursework before leaving.

“The military is a very convenient and available market for online education,” said Richard Garrett, an analyst with Eduventures who studies trends in online learning.

Garrett hopes to soon compile an analysis of the online military trends.

Educators say they are trying to allow soldiers to meet course demands while accommodating for the rigors of duty and erratic patrol schedules.

“We don’t have a library or a designated quiet place to study; however, I am very fortunate to live in a room with a desk,” 2nd Lt. Elizabeth Roxworthy, a platoon leader in Baghdad for the Illinois Guard, wrote in a recent e-mail to the Chicago Tribune.

Roxworthy is hoping to complete a graduate degree from DePaul University that would qualify her to be a high school math teacher. She is taking a final math class online.

“If I didn’t have the opportunity to take the course now, I would have to wait another year to complete my schooling,” wrote Roxworthy, 33, who has been stationed in Iraq since October.

Roxworthy’s math professor, Jeffrey Bergen, said her education had already been delayed once when her unit was deployed to help with post-Hurricane Katrina work.

Bergen sends the lessons and exams for the math course, not usually offered online, to Roxworthy via e-mail. Roxworthy will soon take her midterm in Iraq, Bergen said.

“She is putting her life on the line for our country. It’s the least we can do for her,” Bergen said.

From sprawling bases to small, desert outposts, soldiers are increasingly rearranging their schedules to log in to study groups with teachers and students back home.

“I was enrolled as a Saluki before this deployment, and it is easiest for me to resume courses for my degree through this school,” Pfc. Brooke Goeckner, who is taking a philosophy course from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, wrote in an e-mail to the Chicago Tribune from Iraq.

“Even though I only have time to take one course at a time, it’s still one less class I will have to take when I come home,” wrote Goeckner, who is deployed with Roxworthy in an Illinois Guard security unit from Mattoon.

Routinely, students introduce themselves at the start of the course via online chats. For troops, that means informing the class that they are in Iraq.

“People reacted very positively and said, ‘Thank you for serving our country,'” said Sgt. Lindsay Denford, 25, an Army intelligence analyst. “But after that it just doesn’t get mentioned. There’s not many details I could have told them anyway.”

Unknown to her classmates at the Springfield campus, Denford was holed up for most of 2005 in a remote desert airstrip in central Iraq where she worked out of a former hangar and temporary wooden offices.

For the military, she spent hours on end on a laptop, tracking insurgents’ patterns, briefing pilots and analyzing reconnaissance photos. During her time off, Denford sat at a different laptop near a makeshift gym, taking math and popular culture classes from Springfield.

The Internet connections were spotty due to slow satellite connections or military-imposed blackouts, she said.

“It sometimes took a while to scan assignments and send large files,” she said. “It’s a challenging way to go to school.”

Denford, now on assignment in the Pentagon, has continued her online education from Springfield and hopes to graduate this spring with an undergraduate degree in math.

Marine Cpl. Brace Clement, 28, lived for months in 2004 and 2005 in what he described as “a chicken coop” – a roadside guard post, 30 miles south of Baghdad. There was no mess hall, let alone an Internet link to teachers in Springfield.

In between dangerous patrols, Clement huddled in a wooden shed writing a paper comparing conditions in Iraqi towns to American inner cities. Several times a month, Clement’s unit traveled to Baghdad, where he would download and send his work to Illinois and keep e-mail contact with teachers and students.

“They never knew when I would pop in and out,” said Clement, a Chicago native who graduated in May with a political science degree. “They were fine, though, with waiting until I could file assignments.”

Perry sometimes would be out of contact with his classmates for days as he protected traveling convoys. On patrol, he scanned the roads for trouble, never thinking of his schoolwork.

But back on base, Perry said he focused his attention solely on the school assignments.

“There’s a lot of downtime and schoolwork becomes a sanctuary,” he said. “I couldn’t just play video games and waste the time.”

Perry, who works the evening shift as a dispatcher for Archer Daniels Midland Co., hopes to finish his online courseload this spring and earn a bachelor’s degree in management.

“Students used to hold their breath when he was offline for a while,” said Schroeder. “Then he’d pop back on a week or so later and there was relief. Not everyone can say they went to college while they were in Baghdad.”