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NEWS | June 11, 2020

Double duty: Guard members complete degrees while mobilized

By 1st Lt. Meghan Skrepenski Wisconsin National Guard

MADISON, Wis. – Many of the more than 1,200 members of the Wisconsin National Guard supporting the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic are also working on completing their degrees.

This means that Soldiers and Airmen working long days on the coronavirus response are resigned to staying up long into the night or working weekends to complete homework, tests and assignments. These Guard members, many of whom attend colleges and universities around Wisconsin, go the extra mile to balance their military and civilian lives.

Many of the Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen are wearing masks and personal protective equipment instead of caps and gowns as they step up and answer the call for prolonged activation at community-based testing sites, self-isolation facilities and food banks.

Higher education often takes a backseat to deployments, training, or other military requirements during a military career.

Guard members, especially, usually balance day-to-day school with work, family and life. The dedication that is needed to earn a degree while serving the country is no different, according to some who recently completed their degrees while engaged in the COVID-19 response.

“One of the hardest things for me at this time, is that I don’t know if I can apply for jobs, even though I’ve graduated because I’m not certain when this mission will end,” said Tech. Sgt. Bridget Cox, a medical technician with the 115th Fighter Wing and the Wisconsin National Guard’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Enhanced Response Force Package (CERFP). Cox just graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a bachelor’s degree in biology. She is the noncommissioned officer in charge at an isolation facility monitoring people diagnosed with COVID-19.

“My university was very understanding of my goals and all that is going on in life, and they were able to help me get to the finish line,” Cox said. “Serving during this time has been challenging while trying to support my family and finish school.”

Staff Sgt. Christina Whitney, a medical instructor at the 426th Regional Training Institute, recently completed her associate’s degree in nursing.

“This semester I was not scheduled for any training to interrupt my schooling and was looking forward to that,” she added. “COVID-19 changed that for me as well, and it was really tough with 14 credits and three kids. It felt really good to finish and overcome all of those barriers as I prioritized and completed my educational goals.”

On average, more than 1,000 Wisconsin Guard members use state education benefits each semester, said Maj. Joy Staab, the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs education services officer. Even more use federal education benefits, she said.

“Education benefits are one of the top reasons service members join the Wisconsin National Guard,” Staab said.

During the most recent semester, a few dozen service members asked members of the state education office what options they had for withdrawing from or completing their classes, as they were mobilized to support COVID-19 missions. The education office referred the service members to the 2019 Wisconsin Act 75, a state law that helps protect service members on short-term state or federal active duty. Protections include tuition reimbursement, re-enrollment, and more time to complete final projects and exams. The education office also encouraged students to work with their instructors and schools to determine what to do.

“I graduated in December 2019, then did a five-week temporary duty, passed my nursing board exam and became an emergency room nurse,” said Tech. Sgt. Andrew Zacharias, a search and extraction medic with the 115th Fighter Wing and the CERFP. “I was only there (at my new job) for three weeks and then was requested to be a part of the isolation facility mission, and I have been on mission since then. It’s hard to not be home, but right now with the world in a time of need, it’s what needs to be done.”

Spc. Emma Anderson, a public affairs specialist who mobilized in March during her last semester of student teaching, graduated with her bachelor's degree in education with a licensure to work with and instruct students, aged birth to 11.

“To be activated during the COVID-19 pandemic gives me an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Anderson said. “I get to show my community and the kindergarteners that I work with through student teaching that service isn’t about how it positively impacts you as an individual, but how you can positively impact those around you.”

More than 1,200 Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers and Airmen continue serving their communities as part of the COVID-19 response. Nearly 1,500 also mobilized to state active duty in recent weeks to help maintain public safety during protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Simultaneously, more than 500 troops remain mobilized in places like Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and Ukraine as the primary combat reserve of the Army and Air Force.

 

 

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