JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- Pfc. Oscar Gamboa knows he's not exactly the fastest runner in the Army.
So he copes with it by running as much as he can.
That, he said, is what it will take if his dream of joining the Army's elite Special Forces is ever to see the light of day.
"I'm not a good runner," he said. "I try to run a lot because I know I'm going to need it."
But running isn't the only thing holding the Havana native back. His struggles with the English language present a hurdle that's just as high.
If everything goes according to plan, though, a month-long Basic Skills Education Program class held by the 593rd Sustainment Brigade will change all that.
BSEP, a program within the Army Continuing Education System, was designed to build Soldiers' math, vocabulary and reading comprehension skills. If desired, the refresher of high school-level knowledge can also raise an individual's General Technical score -- a grade determined by taking into account a service member's verbal and arithmetic ratings from the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.
Often enough, the GT score is the deciding factor that either earns a Soldier the job he or she wants or forces the Soldier to settle for something else.
Most of the Soldiers seated before Sgt. Tuesday Sepulveda, who has led her brigade's pilot BSEP program from day one of its inception a year ago, are here, quite simply, for a shot at something new.
Some of them, she said, want to transition into a new occupational specialty but didn't score high enough at the time of enlistment to earn the one they originally hoped for. Some want to be warrant officers, and some want special assignments that require a higher GT score.
"Sometimes they want to brush up on their math skills because they're taking college classes," said Sepulveda, who holds class with one or two fellow instructors at the Stone Education Center every other month for about 25 Soldiers.
For all, there's a goal in site, and for all, some sort of obstacle stands in the way.
For Gamboa, it's English.
The Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosives specialist, assigned to the brigade's 13th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, hadn't spoke much English outside the most basic phrases until his first day of Basic Combat Training.
"When I started basic training was when I started trying to speak English," said Gamboa, 27, who first came to the U.S. less than four years ago.
He still struggles heavily with word and paragraph comprehension.
"These classes, I think, are really helpful," he said. "It refreshes me on a lot of stuff with math, and it helped a lot with English, because, honestly, English is killing me."
Sitting behind Gamboa in class is Spc. Amber Abshire, for whom BSEP class is a fresh start.
A Booneville, Ark., native who joined the Army more than two years ago as a motor transport operator, Abshire recently had a change of heart to let it take her somewhere new: the medical field.
Abshire struck up conversation with an open-heart surgeon while waiting for an appointment at Madigan Army Medical Center and left that day with a new plan for her life.
"She said that she loves her job," Abshire remembered. "She said that when she does her job she just feels such a fulfillment in life, and that's what I'm looking for.
"I've always had a passion for helping people."
So she decided to reenlist and become a medic -- the thing she considers closest to her end goal that she can achieve in the near future.
"Why go back to Arkansas when I can stay in the Army and progress in my career, while at the same time getting closer to my goal?"
To reenlist for that job, however, requires Abshire to first boost her GT score. But if it weren't for the possibility of becoming a medic, she admitted, she would instead be leaving the Army when her service contract ends.
Her story, Sepulveda said, isn't one uncommon to her program, which often keeps Soldiers from transitioning out to pursue something else.
"Someone's success and livelihood and career are based on it," she explained. "That's a lot of pressure and, in the end, satisfaction.
"I mean, it pushes me."
Before the Army, Sepulveda worked as an adviser for the Art Institutes of Phoenix and Seattle, coaching and mentoring high school students as they prepared for their next big step in life.
"They couldn't draw the connection of, 'I need to be here, but I don't know how to get there yet,'" she explained. "But I knew that their goal was to be in art school. I thought, if I can be the liaison between here and art school, then I want to give you my all, because I know what your goal is."
Soldiers, she said, are no different.
"I know your job is to become signal or go Green to Gold, and how can I help you get to that point? And if I can be a part of that, it makes me feel good."
The last two weeks of Sepulveda's class, which is divided into a refresher phase and a testing phase, are reserved for back-to-back tests that predict an individual's ASVAB score.
On the last day, the students take the ASVAB itself.
That day, she said, is stressful but, for the most part, typically very positive.
"Some of them cry, actually," she said. "I just say to myself, 'they wanted to stay in the Army so badly, and I helped to make that connection for them.'"
"That makes me feel awesome."
A better GT score is a requirement for Abshire and Gamboa, but it won't make them an open-heart surgeon or a Green Beret. It is, however, a start.
"This is step one to becoming what I want to be," Abshire said.