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War-zone master's degree

Navy officer wraps up education under fire in Afghanistan

Jul. 12, 2013 - 05:00PM   |  
Thomas Saenz
Saenz was getting his master's degree while fighting in Afghanistan. (AP)
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Navy Lt. Thomas Saenz needed armed guards and an armored car to get to his final exams.

A deadly bomb attack also caused him to miss his classes — transmitted live via the Internet to where he was deployed in Kabul, Afghanistan — but he persevered and earned a master’s degree in engineering from the University of Southern California, all while commanding a top security team.

Saenz joins a growing number of service members earning college degrees while deployed in a war zone.

“They really are multitasking in the extreme,” said Bob Ludwig, spokesman for the University of Maryland University College, which has offered classes in war zones since 2008 and counts about 30,000 active-duty service members among its students. He added that the coursework can provide relief from the mental turmoil of war. “It really is an opportunity to step away from the battlefield and have the sort of the safety of being in a classroom.”

Saenz, a 33-year-old father of two, had used the Post-9/11 GI Bill to enroll at USC stateside. But midway through his studies, the Navy pilot was called for deployment to Afghanistan.

After getting approval from his professors and Navy commanders, Saenz spent his final year of studies racing to his computer on base at 5 a.m. to attend the live transmission of his classes before dedicating his day to overseeing security for top generals and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

He missed a class that required his online presence when a suicide bomber blew himself up near NATO headquarters in Kabul, killing six civilians and triggering a base lockdown.

Saenz wrote to his professor and aide when the Internet was back up to explain his absence.

“I was worried because it was early in the semester and I was afraid it would affect my grade,” he said. “But they were real supportive.”

Another time, he was absent because he was arranging a helicopter to transport the Joint Chiefs chairman, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. Saenz caught up by watching the recorded classes.

“I told my class if Thomas can get his homework done on time, then I don’t think there are any excuses for the rest of you all,” professor Frank Alvidrez said. “And he pulled an A. He was one of the top 10 percent.”

Even getting to finals was treacherous. After military officials checked intelligence to ensure there were no imminent threats, Saenz crossed Kabul on a highly dangerous road with armed guards in an armored SUV to the Army base where a military official was certified to give him the university exams.

While there, he picked up ammo, weapons and dropped off radios to be repaired, then grabbed some barbecue at a tent.

Saenz said he was determined to finish his advanced degree — the second person in his extended family to do so — knowing his 10-year Navy career was ending in June.

An essay he wrote for one of his classes was on World War II veterans going on to lead top companies after returning home. With today’s technology, he sees opportunities for veterans to follow in those footsteps more easily than ever.

“I think we’re in that period again, with the Post-9/11 GI Bill and all these kids coming back with their experience overseas,” Saenz said. “Hopefully, we can come back and do great things for our country outside of our uniform.”

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