Michael Chinneck ’06 has a degree in middle grades language arts and social studies. But in 2008, he began working for Central Texas College, running education centers on military bases in Afghanistan. After spending several weeks helping to set up education centers on different Army bases, he settled at Forward Operating Base Sharana, in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. There he oversaw the offering of college courses to the more than 3,000 members of the 62nd Engineer Battalion. He returned to North Carolina in May and talks here with former NC State intern Ryan Greene about his year of challenge, danger and personal growth.
On his job
[It encompassed] setting up classes for soldiers to take on site. I hired teachers [and] worked with universities to facilitate getting books to their students there. One of the things that soldiers have is goarmyed.com. [The military] gives [them] $4,500 while on active duty to take college courses. There were over 300 different colleges within the system, and the number of degrees was in the thousands. So there were a lot of choices for the soldiers.
On the importance of the work
It sets up their career after the military. I saw soldiers positively working toward something they thought could be attainable in the future. And it provides an outlet for them while they’re deployed to take their mind off the combat environment. I saw soldiers going to classes at night, and they said, “This is the only thing I have besides going to my room and just sitting there and thinking about what’s going on.” On the base, you really don’t have anything else. You have maybe a small [Morale, Welfare and Recreation area], which provides computers and phones. But when you have 20 computers and over 3,000 soldiers on the [base], it’s really not going to be feasible for them all to do that.
On the dangers
Our bases got attacked a couple times while I was there. One base in particular, Salerno, it was attacked twice in two days. About [2 a.m.], I heard something fly by and thought, “That does not sound good.” I heard some explosions and jumped out of bed. They provide [body armor] , so I put that on. We’re walking out to the bunker, and we’re seeing Blackhawks circling the base, we’re hearing gunfire, we’re seeing the Blackhawks firing, seeing all these ammunition rounds in the air. It was scary. The next morning, I notice this vehicle come up, and these guys got out. And they had AK-47s. A helicopter lit those guys up. They had bombs in the car. That was the scariest incident that I was involved in. There was another time there when I was just taking a shower, and then all of a sudden, boom, the whole building shakes. A suicide bomber ran the gate and blew himself up. Killed six civilians and injured one soldier.
On the challenges
One of the challenges was, it is a seven-day workweek, 12 hours every day. You don’t have any time off, really. When you’re even away from the job, people will come up to you and expect you to help them, which is what I was there for. But you never really got a break. Getting supplies was not really that easy. The base that I was at, we were 7,400 feet up. When it came time for winter, temperatures got below 0. Planes, helicopters did not fly. We were stuck with what we had. With the military, the mission is the No. 1 priority. They don’t want soldiers thinking about education, they want them thinking about the combat environment. That’s where I had to really beg and justify why I needed what I needed. I had not been used to that. Being a teacher, I controlled my classroom.
On the rewards
I feel confident that I can be productive in any job that I’m given. I can find a niche, and I can be comfortable completing any task that’s given to me. I also feel that what I did was very beneficial to the people I helped. I had some people that hadn’t taken a college course. They were 43 years old, and they took their first college course because I encouraged them and I set up their account and I helped them. So that really gave me a sense of accomplishment. Being overseas, doing what I did in Afghanistan, I valued more of what I had and the freedoms that being a U.S. citizen granted me. I also gained a greater appreciation for what our military service members go through on a daily basis, and how important their job is to our country.