FORT BENNING, Ga. - One by one, service members, Family members, civilians, and retirees stepped across a stage at Fort Benning Aug. 9 to receive college degrees and educational certificates.

The graduates finished earning their degrees during the 2018-2019 school year but only received them now as part of the sixth annual Army Continuing Education System (ACES) graduation ceremony. The event took place at the Maneuver Center of Excellence headquarters building.

Mayor B.H. "Skip" Henderson of Columbus, Georgia, served as guest speaker. During his remarks, he expressed his admiration for the tenacity the Soldiers and veterans and their Families displayed, especially as they earned their certificates and degrees.

"We have some of our greatest talent in our corporations from Fort Benning, from veterans who when they decide to leave the service stay in Columbus," he said. "By the way, that's a shameless plug. I hope you'll stay in Columbus too."

Master Gunnery Sgt. Steven Heath, the senior enlisted adviser for Marine Corps Detachment Fort Benning, was the student guest speaker at the event. Heath graduated summa cum laude from American Military University with a Bachelor of Arts in transportation and logistics management.

During his speech, he described how during a break in his military service he found his level of education limited his employment options. When he returned to military service, his family supported him when he decided to take college courses.

"I challenge you to continue to set goals, and never let anything get in the way of those goals," said Heath. "If others are working toward their goals, support them. We can all make a difference in each other's lives."

The degrees conferred represented work performed through 26 different colleges and universities from across the United States. During the 2018-2019 school year, 115 ACES participants earned 118 degrees, a few students earning either a degree and certificate or two degrees. There were four certificates conferred, 44 associate's degrees, 50 bachelor's degrees, and 20 master's degrees.

Of the participants, 72 were service members, 69 from the Army and three from sister services. Within the Army, they represented the ranks of specialist through major. Sixteen Family members, 16 civilians, and 11 retired service members earned their degree or certificate.

Many of these degrees come from courses online from colleges out of state. Holding the ceremony at Fort Benning was for the convenience of the graduates and their Families, said Shannon Gardner, an educational services specialist at the Fort Benning Army Education Center.

"Of those 115, I think probably about 85 walked the stage with us today," she said. "And that's due to again military life coming into play. Some people have field exercises, some people have other events going on.

Gardner said that military life would often delay college education, whether it was when the Soldier or Family permanently changed station, deployed, took part in training, or experienced a significant life event.

"Part of getting that college degree is that it takes time," said Gardner. "It could have been two years, it could have been as many as 22 years that it took these guys to actually accomplish this great goal of graduation."

Lakeitha Smiley-Hooks, a budget analyst with the Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning, graduated with honors from American Military University, earning a Master of Business Administration with a concentration in finance.

"It's definitely been a journey," said Smiley-Hooks, who thanked her Family for encouraging her. "I had to make a lot of sacrifices as far as time - late nights and sometimes not being available for them. I'm thankful they understood that."

The ACES mission is to vigorously promote lifelong learning opportunities to sharpen the competitive edge of the Army by providing and managing quality self-development programs and services. ACES is committed to excellence in educational service, innovation and deployability. In addition, ACES has been providing quality educational support for over 50 years to Soldiers and their Family members.