Soldiers take classes during deployment

Josh Kelley
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 22, 2007 12:00 AM

As Army Sgt. Joel Ruiz serves in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division, the Mesa resident also is pursuing a degree in criminal justice.

It's an option that was not available to troops in wars gone by, but now they are taking online courses from bases on the battlefield.

Ruiz, 23, is one of more than 1,300 Army troops enrolled at Tempe's Rio Salado College who are taking courses online through the eArmyU program.

Many of those soldiers, like Ruiz, have continued their education while being deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I promised my mom that I would continue my civilian education once I joined the Army, plus it helps for career advancement," Ruiz said in an e-mail from Iraq.

The Army says the mission of eArmyU is to increase retention and develop "educated, technology-savvy soldiers."

Students enroll in courses at low or no cost while on active duty. They have access to online tutors and counseling services.

The other branches offer similar courses.

The Air Force launched a program last week that allows enlisted men and women to more easily navigate online courses through the Community College of the Air Force.

The Navy offers active-duty sailors a distance-learning program in partnership with eight colleges and universities.

Marines take online courses with tuition assistance while deployed overseas.

Rio Salado's military enrollment is down from its peak after troop deployments to the Middle East, said Chris Bustamante, the college's vice president for community development and student services.

Bustamante expects the number to rise once fewer soldiers are overseas.

Besides students from the Army, the college has more than 600 airmen enrolled from Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, the majority of whom take courses on the base.

Penny Freuler of Chandler is a Rio Salado adjunct faculty member who retired from the Arizona Army National Guard. Freuler said she remembers the difficulty she had with taking courses while in the military because she had to attend class in person. Temporary assignments in the field or deployments overseas would interrupt coursework.

Now, Freuler said, "They just take their laptop with them, and as long as they can find Internet access, they can work on their class."

Despite the convenience, the danger of war remains.

Freuler recalled teaching a soldier through an online course until his laptop was blown up in Iraq. He sent her an e-mail saying, "Recently our outpost was attacked in which my computer was destroyed (also the building)." He went on to say he may be behind on his assignments and asked if that was OK.

"This is the real twist on my dog eating the homework," Freuler said.

While deployed, soldiers have few distractions when they're off duty, said Freuler.

"It's not like you can go to the mall or go to the movies," she said. "It's actually a really good time to concentrate on education."