Since it became law 70 years ago, the GI Bill® has changed the lives of millions of veterans and their families, helping pave their path to college in gratitude for their personal sacrifice to the nation.
In fiscal year 2013 alone, more than 750,000 individuals received education benefits through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the latest version of the original legislation signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. An additional 337,000 veterans and their dependents were beneficiaries of other education programs, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported.
The true measure of the GI Bill’s success, however, is found in the stories of the veterans behind those statistics – people like Brett Knaub, who graduated from Florida Institute of Technology in June 2014 with an MBA in Project Management, offered 100% online.
“When I signed up, the GI Bill was one of the key factors impacting my decision,” said Knaub, a decorated U.S. Air Force veteran who also used military benefits to attain a master’s degree in aerospace science management. “I was grateful to know that my service provided an opportunity to continue my formal education.”
Knaub is Chief of the Transition Division for the Project Global Shield Program Management Office at U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) headquarters on Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. His duties include developing and executing a transition plan for the relocation of STRATCOM’S approximately 4,000 military and civilian personnel, and its mission systems and equipment to a nearly 1 million-square-foot command and control facility. Construction on the $1 billion project began in mid-2014.
STRATCOM’s mission is to protect the United States and its allies from nuclear, cyber, space-based and other types of attacks.
Knaub retired in 2011 with the rank of colonel after a quarter-century with the Air Force. It was a military career that took him from Ogallala, a former cattle town of 4,600 residents along the South Platte River in the plains of western Nebraska, to postings in Texas, California, North Dakota, Nevada, Louisiana, Guam and Florida before eventually leading him back to his home state.
Knaub built a stellar résumé while serving his country: Commander, 340th Weapons Squadron; Operations Director, 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron; Senior Air Operations Planner, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM); and Chief, Weaponeering Division, STRATCOM. A master navigator, he helped plan and coordinate the use of air power during the military operations known as Desert Fox, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
Despite his accomplished skillset, Knaub still faced challenges in transitioning to a civilian career.
“I spent 25 years gaining extremely practical skills that many potential employers won't understand or acknowledge,” he said. “The GI Bill gives us the breathing room and time to gain recent credibility that the private sector recognizes to help leverage those skills and provide a bridge to civilian employment without having to start completely from scratch.”
Knaub said his Master of Business Administration degree from Florida Tech has brought him “enhanced knowledge and credibility” as a project management professional, while also positioning him to attain his long-term goal of opening his own business.
Recently, Knaub took some time from his busy schedule to talk with us about his military service, how the GI Bill has affected his professional life and his experiences as an online student at Florida Tech.
Q. Tell us about your background and why you decided to join the military.
I grew up in a small town in rural western Nebraska and always considered military service an exciting and prestigious endeavor. My family and community are very patriotic but not steeped in military tradition. Like most boys, my childhood ambitions included romantic notions of professional sports, and adventures defending freedom and fighting evil. In high school, I unsuccessfully applied for an ROTC scholarship and considered applying for a U.S. Air Force Academy appointment, but by the time I was ready to start college I was married and had a new baby.
Obviously, boyhood daydreams gave way to adult realities and I set out to be the first one in my family to complete college. I worked my way through college and by the time I was ready to graduate, I hadn’t given military service any appreciable consideration for over four years. My pending geology degree did not present a staggering list of employment opportunities at that time, and my financial situation deteriorated to the point I had to leave school for a quarter and work full time for a trucking company.
I was fairly close to not returning to school at all when I received a call from an Air Force recruiter asking if I’d be interested in flying for the Air Force. With nothing to lose, I set up an appointment to discuss possible options and opportunities offered by the U.S. Air Force. Interestingly, it was my wife who initiated this dialogue that eventually led to my commission in the Air Force. As it turns out, she sent in one of those recruiting cards stapled into a magazine we had lying around the house.
Once we talked, I discovered getting into the military wasn’t just going to be automatic – sign on the dotted line. I needed to get back in school, earn my degree and be available for entry into Officer Training School (OTS) in four months. I quit my job at the trucking company, took out one more “large” student loan and struck a deal with my department to load up my schedule for one final quarter. If I was able to successfully complete the courses, including one out-of-cycle independent study course, they would confer my degree in March and I’d be off to the races.
In the meantime, I was accepted to OTS on the condition I passed the aptitude test and completed my degree in time to make the April class start date. I passed the aptitude test on the second try, and completed my courses and my undergraduate degree by the skin of my teeth. The rest, as they say, is history.
So, economics ultimately drove my decision, but my background and upbringing provided the motivation, character and fortitude to succeed in the military. I retired 25 years later filled with pride in my experience and accomplishments, but humbled by the opportunity to serve my country for so long, under challenging circumstances. I owe my own and my family’s strong values, along with my personal and professional success, to the United States Air Force, and am acutely aware I received more in the bargain than I gave.
Q. How have military benefits such as the GI Bill impacted your education and your professional and personal life?
When I signed up, the GI Bill was one of the key factors impacting my decision. I was grateful to know that my service provided an opportunity to continue my formal education. Besides the GI Bill, there is another program that pays up to 75% for advanced education programs in exchange for extended active-duty service commitment.
Both the GI Bill and military tuition assistance (TA) are funded by taxpayers. These benefits are not “entitlements” – they are taxpayer-funded compensation exchanged for military service. These programs provide important incentives that attract people to the services and keep people in our all-volunteer military longer than otherwise possible. So, these benefits help the nation, not just the individual serving in the military.
On a personal level, my military education benefits helped me earn two advanced degrees. The first one helped me progress to the senior officer ranks and the second is helping me complete a successful transition to civilian life. Aside from the obvious impact on my graduate-level knowledge, leadership and management skills, this advanced education had direct and positive impact on my professional growth and achievement.
Q. What skills did you develop in the military that have been important in your educational success?
The military instilled discipline, integrity, accountability and the ability to think critically about solutions to difficult, unique challenges. I learned a sense of mission, teamwork and a results-oriented approach to life that instills the confidence to succeed, no matter the odds or obstacles. Most importantly, military service reinforces a sense of service and sacrifice as a core value. Military service made me responsible for my conduct and performance, as well as the conduct and performance of those on my team.
Q. What do you believe are the most important factors in making the transition from military duty to civilian life?
Transition happens, ready or not. I knew with certainty I was leaving the military nearly a year prior to my final retirement date. I was intuitively aware of the need to develop and execute a transition strategy. The Air Force’s transition services also emphasized the importance of planning and preparation, and I took full advantage of what they had to offer. In spite of what I thought was fairly thorough preparation, as the date of my departure crept closer, a sense of futility set in. I was covering all of the bases but not feeling any better about my situation. I never did feel ready to leave, and three years later still find myself struggling with the transition to civilian life.
What I didn’t quite understand at the time I know now to be two important factors. The first is time. Transition occurs the day you leave the military in only the fundamental sense of the word. Now that I’m a few years removed from that day I last put on the uniform, I realize the extent to which my personal and professional identity was, and is, intertwined with military service. It takes time to work through the adjustment to civilian life, no matter how ready you think you are.
The second factor is reflection. Transition is not about the next job. Again, this is a discovery made in the time since I left the military. Even though my transition counselors advised me to use this opportunity to take stock of my life, both personally and professionally, I either didn’t pay attention or was still too busy with active-duty commitments to internalize the advice. Transition from active-duty military is a milestone that should not be suppressed or expedited for the sake of quickly getting on with life.
I think many of us rarely take the time or effort to actually pause and take a bearing check on life’s direction. Transition from the military smacks you in the face with this chance and it is wise to take full advantage of it. For 25 years, I was on autopilot as I served my country engulfed in the day-to-day. Any strategic life planning was relegated to the back of my consciousness as I naively operated as if I’d be doing this forever. Then one day, it was over.
Again, no matter how detailed or certain your plans are following the military, use transition as an opportunity to reflect on your individual situation. Survey your personal, professional and family landscape before you race off on the next set of random activities for the next 20 years of your life. Three years later, I’m still reflecting … because it took me a while to understand the significance of this milestone and the opportunity it presented. Take the time to reflect.
Q. Why did you decide to advance your education through a Master of Business Administration with a Specialization in Project Management degree program?
I always wanted an MBA, and since I was hired to work in a project management organization, the specialization provided enhanced knowledge and credibility with respect to the organization and those impacted by the organization. My ultimate goal is to open a small business, and the MBA provided the tools and confidence necessary to eventually reach for that goal.
Q. How did you learn about Florida Tech’s online MBA program and what were the major factors in your decision to enroll?
I discovered Florida Institute of Technology through a web search, and the screening and application process was straightforward. Florida Tech also offered the right combination of 100% online coursework and a degree program exactly suited to my needs.
Q. What was your favorite class and why?
I’ll give you two, sorry. Mastering Project Management combined a well-written textbook, an exceptional instructor (Dr. Wayne Brantley is a very gifted and talented professor), and the extra motivation associated with topping off my MBA specialty coursework.
My other favorite was Financial Management for the simple fact that it was my first finance class of any sort, and overcoming that challenge was particularly memorable and rewarding.
Q. What surprised you most about taking an online program?
The level and effectiveness of the collaboration included in the program was most unexpected. Frankly, I anticipated recorded lectures and a few group projects sprinkled throughout the program. To my pleasant surprise, the daily interaction between professors and students on discussion boards, emails, web-based collaboration tools and teleconferencing had a big impact on my academic success, and it also dramatically enriched the program and sustained an intellectually challenging experience.
Q. What were the most important factors in successfully balancing your college coursework with your military duties and family life?
The most important factor is an understanding and supportive spouse. Two other keys to success include the discipline to dedicate at least one to two hours a night to the course, and a willingness to forego whatever additional spare time necessary to complete the assignments and prepare for exams. Once the decision is made to pursue this goal, one must be willing to invest the time to succeed. Two years out of one’s life is not insignificant.
Q. What was your most valuable takeaway from the MBA program?
Besides the knowledge acquired regarding business and project management, the MBA program gave me renewed confidence and competence with respect to my ability to compete and succeed outside of the military.
Q. How do you believe your Florida Tech degree will make a difference in your career?
The academic credentials will positively impact my career, but more importantly, the MBA program provided practical knowledge and business skills that I use every day on the job. Again, this added confidence and competence provides a timely reminder that the power that drives my future success rests firmly in my hands.
Q. What advice would you give to military servicemembers and veterans who are considering enrolling in an online degree program?
Jump right in. You’ve never been better prepared to re-enter the academic world than you are now, and I promise your military experience ensures your next academic experience will be nothing like you encountered before.
Q. Who or what inspires you to succeed?
My inspiration comes from: God, my dad and mom, my wife and kids, and now my grandkids. Additional motivation and drive comes from: Evildoers and those who underestimate me.
Q. What is one fun fact about you?
Hunting pheasants in Nebraska with my dogs, my boys and my wife is as good as life gets on this Earth.
Are you a military student or graduate of Florida Tech’s 100% online degree programs? We would love to share your success story in our Student Spotlight series. Contact us at StudentSpotlight@universityalliance.com for additional details.
GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site at www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.