CONTINGENCY OPERATING LOCATION Q-WEST, Iraq - Members of a Mississippi Army National Guard convoy security company stationed at Contingency Operating Location Q-West are furthering their civilian educations through distance learning, said an officer in the company Nov. 21.

Soldiers with A Company, 106th Brigade Support Battalion, out of Magee, Miss., and attached to 2nd Battalion, 198th Combined Arms, headquartered in Senatobia, Miss., spend free time reading textbooks and doing coursework for various degrees, said 1st Lt. Nicki J. Shaw, the company executive officer.

Shaw said that about 10 percent of the company is taking online courses, working toward associate, bachelor's and master's degrees.

"It's a really good thing for Soldiers to be able to work on getting their degrees during a deployment," said Shaw, a native of Florence, Miss. "Even with all the convoy missions, they can find time to study. It helps their civilian careers, improves their military promotion opportunities, and keeps them out of trouble."

1st Sgt. Troy D. Scott, pursuing a bachelor's of science degree, finds the process difficult but rewarding.

"The biggest issue I have is finding time because my schedule keeps me busy," said Scott, a Pearl, Miss., native. "Things pop up all the time, so it's difficult to find study time. During a mission, when we get to a destination, I can sometimes borrow someone's computer to get work done before we leave out."

Scott said he waited too long to begin post-high school studies.

"I made the mistake of waiting thirty years before deciding to get a degree," said Scott, who is working toward a Science in Management degree. "It's a challenge learning the technology, and I am working hard to improve my computer literacy. Young people grow up with computer skills that older folks have to learn, and it's like learning a new language."

Scott said that a good civilian education has become more and more important in a military career.

"You have to have some college training to perform. For instance, if you hope to become a sergeant major in today's Army, you have to have good writing skills," said Scott. "One of the main things a sergeant major does is write policy, and the Sergeant Major Academy is academically equal to an associate's degree."

Staff Sgt. Kenley E. Feazell, a platoon sergeant from New Hebron, Miss., agreed.

"A civilian degree is important for a military career, even for enlisted. It helps with promotion and makes you a more capable leader. Then, I want to be an example to my children. I wouldn't want my children to do something I couldn't do myself."

A full-time Guardsman, Feazell said that the degree will help him find a second career when he retires from the military. Even so, the process was a big commitment, he said.

"I completed my degree this month, a B.S. in Accounting, but it was tough finding the time when you're planning and going on missions every week. I studied late at night or early in the morning, working on four to six hours of sleep."

Capt. Bradley S. Hollingsworth, commander of A Company and native of Florence, Miss., said that a civilian education has become more important in a military career because Soldiers are more highly qualified.

"Having a degree is very important in the military, for both the active duty and reserve component. I think this is because the quality of Soldiers has increased across the board. Education becomes the deciding factor on a job. When you're comparing two equally qualified Soldiers, and only one has a civilian degree, the degree holder will edge out the other Soldier. You see this among enlisted personnel and officers. These days, officers need to have a master's degree to compete for promotion and positions."

Hollingsworth said it was important to support Soldiers in every way possible.

"My first sergeant and I do everything we can to support Soldiers who want to continue their education during deployment. We make information available to them, and we help them find the time they need. We try to steer them in the right direction. We make sure they use their down time productively, bettering their mental and physical fitness."

Staff Sgt. Myrna G. McCullum, truck commander from Collins, Miss., has been working eight years on a bachelor's of science in psychology, which she hopes to finish in the coming year.

"I am a mother first, so I do this when I can," said McCullum. "Finishing a degree is all about discipline. You have to make a plan and stick to it. I have assignments due every three weeks, and I have to stay on top of it. I am an early morning person, so I get up at 4:00 a.m. to work on my classes."

McCullum said that she appreciates being able to get a degree through distance learning.

"I love online study," said McCullum. "I can be home for my kids, and I don't have to deal with traffic. I can set my own schedule."

Get a degree while you are young, said McCullum.

"My advice to Soldiers is don't wait on getting an education," said McCullum. "It gets harder with age, believe me, and it's so important these days. With an education, you can go somewhere with your life. You can explore opportunities and get out front with your career. Having a degree makes opportunities open up."