Army Helps Dropouts Earn GED
By Peter Biello
Wilmington, NC – A pilot program at the Army's Fort Jackson near Columbia, South Carolina is offering high school dropouts a chance to earn their GED for free in exchange for their service. The Army hopes this program will keep their enlistment numbers steady as the wars overseas continue.
Twenty-eight year old William Kamicka dropped out of high school more than ten years ago. He wanted to join the military, but his family talked him out of it. So the Columbiaville, Michigan native got a job. He eventually found work at a gift shop where he met his wife. They got married. Now they have four kids. Kamicka says having a family made it hard for him to get his GED.
"I'd eat up any overtime I could get my hands on, just to get that extra dollar," Kamicka says, "so that interfered with my GED classes at Michigan. I never really got to finish."
Then a few months ago, as Michigan's economy tanked, Kamicka and his wife lost their jobs. He went on unemployment and searched for a new job, but without a diploma, he couldn't even find work at a fast food restaurant. So he tried to join the military.
"You know, the Navy, Air Force and Marines wouldn't accept me. The Army had said, 'We'll pay for your GED, you get it and then you can come join.'"
The Army's new Preparatory School at Fort Jackson made that possible by providing free GED classes in exchange for service in the Army. Since its creation last August, the school has helped more than 1000 recruits earn their GED.
Along with classroom instruction, these recruits also get a taste of the rigors of army life.
Every morning, before sunrise, these new soldiers exercise on a campus about the size of a city block. The rest of the day they're in class.
Captain Brian Gaddis is the Commanding Officer of the school. Gaddis says three things will keep you out of the Army: physical limitations, a criminal history, or an incomplete high school education.
"We can't change someone's medical background. We can't change someone's criminal past, but we can change their education," says Gaddis. "And oh by the way, we can do it in four weeks, or less."
Gaddis says nearly all students, who range in age from 17 to 41, pass the GED within six weeks. He credits the high success rate to discipline and the removal of distractions. Gaddis says ten-percent of the students tried to get a GED before they joined.
"Many of them weren't able to complete it because they weren't able to devote time to it, due to needing to pay bills or family issues," says Gaddis. "So what we do here: We take all the distracters away."
"Not everybody thinks going to the Army for a free GED is the way to go. Arlene Inouye runs the Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools, based in Los Angeles. She says the Army is luring vulnerable, often low-income people into dangerous combat situations with the promise of a free education.
"They look like the savior and white knight, you know, coming to rescue them," says Inouye, "but in reality, they're using these young people to get their bodies."
But Captain Brian Gaddis says not all of the students are from low-income families, and not every soldier will see combat. He says every soldier does receive great health benefits, steady pay and tuition assistance that many couldn't find in the civilian world.
"The Army does need what it needs from you," says Gaddis, " but it gives you so much back in return that it's almost criminal to call it exploitive."
At one of the weekly graduation ceremonies, 57 graduates shake hands with Captain Gaddis and other school commanders.
Private William Kamicka passed the GED exam after less than two weeks of classes. Now he'll be sent to basic training, making room for the next new student soldier.
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