Achieving your degree is a tremendous accomplishment. Many times, military spouses are not able to complete their education due to the inherent challenges of military life – multiple moves, deployments, injuries, children’s needs, etc. Sarah Gaul’s dream of completing a bachelor’s degree will finally come true, thanks to a full-tuition scholarship from Southern New Hampshire University, presented at Operation Homefront’s June 2018 Homefront Celebration in Anchorage, Alaska, a military spouse appreciation event that was a bright spot during a rough period in Sarah’s life.
Grateful that SNHU’s military-friendly programs are flexible, Sarah will complete her education at her own pace because the former Coast Guard reservist just recently completed breast cancer treatment after an October 2017 diagnosis, works part time, and has three active sons with her husband, Jeramy, who medically retired from the Coast Guard in June 2018.
In fact, all five family members started new schools this fall. Sarah, who has sewn all her life and started working in a quilt shop in May 2018, is majoring in fashion merchandising and management and digital photography. Jeramy is in the geomatics program at University of Alaska Anchorage. Their oldest son, Frank, 14, just started high school. Middle son Sean, 11, entered middle school, and their youngest, Henry, 5, started kindergarten.
Sarah said they will need to support each other through some inevitable school-related stress because she still has “chemo brain” from her cancer treatment which required multiple surgeries and four rounds of chemotherapy. Their older two boys are on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. And Jeramy has experienced several traumatic brain injuries leading to his medical retirement. The Veterans Affairs Department rated his disability at 100 percent. Jeramy’s initial TBI happened 21 years ago during a training accident while in the Washington National Guard. A tank hatch slammed shut on his head. “He’s lucky to be alive,” Sarah said, adding that he was wearing a helmet. He suffered a broken jaw. Later on multiple occasions, Jeramy hit his head while on Coast Guard boats, and fell down a ladder well.
Suffice it to say that life since her diagnosis and Jeramy’s retirement, with the whole family in different schools, has been “just crazy,” as Sarah puts it. That’s why she greatly enjoyed a night out to herself at the Homefront Celebration. She sat with SNHU representatives and students who shared their perspectives on balancing school, work and home responsibilities. Operation Homefront (OH) also treated attendees, including many Army and Air Force spouses, to a catered dinner, dancing and prizes.
“It was so much fun,” said Sarah, who follows OH on Facebook, and had participated previously in OH’s Back-to-School Brigade and Holiday Toy Drive events. “It was an amazing night. They took great care of us. The gift bags were just stuffed full of things.”
Sarah had a good time at the event even though she feels “so self-conscious now” because the chemotherapy caused her to lose her hair. “Even 20 minutes to myself is a wonderful thing,” she said, adding that it was nice to find something to do for herself because she can’t get her hair done, or go for a back massage because she can’t lie on the table until she’s fully recovered from her surgeries.
Sarah said the scholarship was the “ultimate prize” because without it, she would have had to delay returning to school until after their kids graduated from college. “Financially, there’s no way that we could afford for me to go back to school. I had really just put going back to school out of my mind.”
Now she can work on her classes as she finds time. “We’re teaching our kids how important education is,” Sarah said. “Not having that degree over the years has been tough for me.” She has wished she had a degree because many employers require one even for entry-level work, and it will improve her job prospects after being a stay-at-home mom for 14 years, an experience she “would not trade … for anything.”
It was not for lack of trying that Sarah has been unable to finish her degree. It’s just one of the many challenges and sacrifices that comes with the territory of serving in the military. She had previously taken online courses through American Military University, but could not continue because Jeramy went to a Coast Guard cutter in the Bering Sea, while she took care of the kids.
Sarah enlisted in the Coast Guard Reserve in 1998. Jeramy, who had been serving in the Washington National Guard, later switched into the Coast Guard Reserve. They married in 2001, not long before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Because of 9/11, they both got called to active duty, and the Coast Guard sent them to different places even though they were in the same unit. They didn’t see each other for three months. Jeramy went to an electronic support unit in Seattle; Sarah went to the marine safety office, conducting vessel safety inspections. Once she got pregnant with their oldest in 2003, she continued some inspections, but had to stop others because of the environmental risk.
Frank was born in 2004, at about the same time her six years of active drilling was ending. She got out because of her concern that as a dual military couple, they would have child care issues. In 2005, Jeramy accepted an active-duty Coast Guard assignment that moved them from Seattle to Anchorage.
“Having transferred and moved as much as we have as a military family, it’s not easy,” Sarah said.
With a degree in fashion merchandising and management and digital photography skills, Sarah can help retailers with buying decisions, staying relevant in the economy, and keeping customers coming back. “I’m excited to get back into school and start learning again. Mentally for me, I think it will help with my chemo brain … to keep my brain engaged.”
Thank you Southern New Hampshire University for supporting our military spouses and helping us host Homefront Celebrations across the USA and for helping our military spouses realize their education goals.
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