LAKEWOOD, Wash. -- When Jan Muri's husband earned his master's degree 24 years ago, he attended a graduation ceremony in a theater on what was then Fort Lewis. The event was quiet and dim, with a crowd of graduates and well wishers hardly overflowing the venue.

"I remember there were a bunch of empty, empty seats," Muri, an education guidance counselor at Joint Base Lewis-McChord's Stone Education Center, said.

That was then.

It was a full house at the first-ever combined Army and Air Force graduation ceremony at Clover Park Technical College Feb. 3. The band played for the 170 Army, Air Force and civilian graduates of on- and off-base programs who walked across the stage to receive their degrees.

Last week's ceremony combined and streamlined two -- one held by each service -- in years prior to joint basing. But the sentiment of the event was the same as it has always been -- to recognize the commitment servicemembers make to education in spite of the difficulties of military service.

"Perseverance is the key to all completed endeavors," I Corps Rear Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Verbeke told the graduates.

He spoke from personal experience. He spent 12 years earning his bachelor's degree while on active duty, and knows firsthand the effort it takes to complete a degree while facing deployments and family difficulties.

"I was even able to use the excuse in one class that I left my textbooks in Baghdad," he said. "And the teacher let me off."

What Verbeke knew then and now is that he needed that degree to market himself in the civilian world -- and that military service teaches people that anything can be accomplished.

That's something that Master Sgt. Calvin Wynn, U.S. Army Garrison, JBLM, knows, too.
Standing with his Army Combat Uniform peeking out from under his cap and gown, Wynn took a minute to reflect on the degree he's been working toward since 1996. Four deployments later, he holds a Bachelor of Science in Technical Management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

"That piece of paper means a lot," he said.

Wynn's not finished, though. He already has plans to start his master's degree, because he knows that education will be the key to his success in civilian life.

For Verbeke, success in life is not the only product of a degree.

"With education comes responsibility," he told the graduates. "We must use our education to make the world a better place."