Active combat duty no hindrance to Norwich education

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Norwich University College of Graduate and Continuing Studies students Col. Kevin Brown and 1st Lt. David Robins completed portions of their degree programs from the front lines of the global war on terror.

Brown, 43, a fifth-seminar Master of Arts in Diplomacy student, is finishing up the degree he started during a 15-month deployment to Kirkuk province, Iraq, where he served as deputy brigade commander of the Army's 1st Brigade Combat Team.

Robins, 26, stationed in Vicenza, Italy, is in his final seminar of the Master of Public Administration program. He returned in September from a 15-month tour in the Konar province of Afghanistan with the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Like Brown, he wanted a program he could work on while serving overseas that fit his ideals.

"One of the benefits of military service is that I get to serve the country that I take pride in," said Robins. If he were to ever leave the military, Robins said he would continue serving his country in the public sector. A public administration degree is one way of preparing for that possibility.

Depending on location and job responsibilities, the experiences of students on active duty can vary greatly.

Robins started his studies in December 2006, and completed his first seminar while training at Fort Benning. However, while preparing for deployment and training in Italy, he had to take six months off from the program due to time constraints. While preparing for deployment to Afghanistan, Robins was able to pick the program back up.

According to Robins, combat in Afghanistan is heavily influenced by the seasons.

"Much of the year, the combat atmosphere is very high paced, with more attacks and enemy action," he said. In the winter, however, things slow down considerably. As mountain passes freeze over, enemy activity becomes limited and the daily routine changes from regular attacks to monitoring the enemy's activity.

"It's more of a reactive state rather than a proactive state," Robins said.

The winter pace provided Robins the time he needed to complete the second semester of his program.

Brown started his program after his deployment and didn't have to take time off for training.

Technological capabilities also vary.

"I was lucky, as a colonel and a deputy commander, to always have the necessary technology at my fingertips," said Brown. He had a computer with Internet access available at all times - except, of course, for the time when a fiber-optic cable running through the Mediterranean Sea was cut, affecting Internet access for the entire region.

"The running joke was that I could not do my homework because a shark bit the cable," Brown said.

Robins was not so fortunate. While he had his own laptop, he and about a dozen other soldiers had to share one computer with Internet access. With only a few minutes of use at a time, Robins would download assignments to a thumb drive, work on them from his personal laptop and upload them later in the week.

Both found the CGCS faculty to be understanding of their unique situations.

Brown's military responsibilities occasionally trumped his schoolwork, and he sometimes had to accept a zero on an assignment. On these occasions, he found his instructor was understanding and willing to work with him to ensure he wouldn't fail.

Many of Robins' difficulties stemmed from weather.

"We had a multitude of atmospheric issues. Bad weather occurs pretty regularly when you are at 12,000 feet elevation in the Hindu Kush Mountains," he said. "Luckily for me, my professors were flexible and understood that some things were out of my control. They gave me extra time when I needed it."

Regardless of the differences in their experiences, both Brown and Robins were successful in completing portions of their degrees from the front lines - no small feat.

Brown's studies proved to be a valuable asset to his work in Iraq.

"The most intriguing thing about my experience was that the [Diplomacy] program was clearly the right program at the right time. I can't tell you the number of times that life imitated art," Brown said. "I was experiencing firsthand what I was studying in class."

For example, he read about microloans for his economics seminar. On the very next day, Brown was forced to assess the real-world implementation of a microloan program in Iraq. He attended a conference in Tikrit for provincial investment committee chiefs, USAID representatives and others providing the loans. At the same time, he dealt with local imams who were preaching against accepting loans from these organizations.

"My classes were discussing what I was living on a daily basis," Brown said.

Brown's commanding officer, Col. David Paschal, encouraged him in Iraq to keep up with his schoolwork.

"The degree was an opportunity for him to decompress from the mission, and an opportunity to put into practice what he was studying," said Paschal.

"It was a testament of Kevin's ability to maintain professionalism in carrying out his duties while at the same time carrying on a master's program," he added.