Online or beyond the wire
Whether online or beyond the wire, Aaron Taylor of Vidor is a man on a mission. A corporal in the U.S Marine Corps, Taylor is serving with Company G of the 2nd Marines Special Operations Battalion out of Camp Lejeune, and is currently deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He is also completing his college degree at Lamar University.
When he’s not on convoy duty or probing for the enemy somewhere in the contested region, he is at work finishing his degree through Lamar’s 100-percent-online Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences program. He is on track to graduate in August.
A senior, Taylor left Lamar to join the Marines with 120 credits earned — just a few courses short of completing his degree in biology. He said in an email that he decided to enlist because “I wanted to do something that I knew was going to require a 100 percent effort and something that I would never forget I accomplished.”
It is a decision his wife, Tammy, fully supported. “We were meant to be together,” he said of Tammy, whom he has known since the two were in third grade. Their son, Aaron Hilton Taylor Jr., was born on his father’s birthday in 2008. “I have absolutely the best wife in the world,” he said. “Both of them mean the world to me.”
While he takes a lot of ribbing from the other Marines about not yet graduating, it is not a decision he regrets. “I wanted to start at the bottom and work my way up,” he said. “I felt that if I understood the enlisted side, then became an officer, I would be a more effective leader.”
In October 2009, Taylor learned of Lamar’s online program just three weeks before he deployed to Afghanistan. He realized that although he would not be able to take the biology classes that required hands-on lab work, the B.A.A.S. program provided a way to keep working toward a degree. He became one of the first to enroll in the program. After he completes his military service, he plans to take those biology classes with an eye toward veterinarian school.
“I have developed a unique rapport with Aaron,” said Tony Sarda, his academic advisor at Lamar. “Much of our conversation happens via email, and many are exchanged on Afghanistan time. On occasion, Aaron will call the office from the field and let me know he is doing okay as he counts down the days to his safe and long-awaited return to Texas.”
Taylor credits Sarda with making his participation possible by assisting in getting him enrolled, providing class and book information, and helping with any issues that popped up. “Trust me, as soon as I am able to get back to Texas I plan on giving him a great big bear hug,” he said.
Taylor keeps very busy, which helps the time pass more quickly. “Out here I’m either doing work, on convoys, studying, talking to the family or at the gym,” he wrote. That continues a pattern for the student athlete who excelled in football, basketball, track and power lifting, but also participated in choir, studied the martial arts and worked part time, all while keeping up with his schoolwork. “I’m the guy who wants to do everything all at the same time,” he said.
As a radio field operator by trade, Taylor serves as the radio chief within his unit. It is his responsibility to ensure all equipment is fully operational for his company, which includes 106 people comprising a headquarters element and three teams. From radios to cryptographic devices to vehicle communications, that adds up to a lot of high-tech gear. Like all Marines, he’s an integral part of the team outside the wire when he serves as a gunner on convoys.
There is “a lot of downtime and all of a sudden stuff comes up and everyone wants it done yesterday,” Taylor said. Missions may change at a moment’s notice “like the weather back in Southeast Texas. We have a saying here, ‘Semper Gumby’ which means always flexible.”
That flexibility has taken him to “some really remote places hundreds of miles from anything resembling civilization to cities that are a much dirtier, less developed version of our towns.” Different, too, are the many children seen working in shops, selling wares on the side of the road, carrying water. And the traffic: “I’ve seen a car with 15 people inside and four kids riding on the roof,” Taylor said. “I saw a guy on a motorcycle the other day with his 9-month-old child in front of him balanced on the gas tank, and his wife and two more kids behind him. It is really crazy.” He calls going out the hardest and the neatest part – hard for the preparation, and the uncertainty, but the opportunity to see the people of the country is something he relishes.
Outside the wire, Taylor likes to share candy with the children. “I have had my wife buy $100 worth of candy and send it to me,” he said. “It is really what makes me get through the day, seeing them smile. That is how we are going to win this war, by showing the younger generation that there is something better out there.”
There is no denying the dangers of the mission, the uncertainty of life and the bond between Marines. It all came together when the company lost one of its own.
“He is someone I thought very highly of and aspired to be like,” Taylor said of Gunnery Sgt. Robert Gilbert, 28, of Richfield, Ohio, felled in an ambush. A Marines’ Marine and the youngest ever promoted to gunnery sergeant, Gilbert died of his wounds on his birthday March 16 at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., with family and friends at his bedside. A couple of days before the ambush, his Kevlar vest had been credited with saving his life from a different Taliban bullet. It was his second Afghanistan tour and he felt like luck was running out, close friends said.
“He, like many other service members, paid the ultimate price so that people can live the lives they do,” Taylor said. “He didn’t do what he did for recognition but because he loved what he did and had a sense of purpose in protecting his country. I think sometimes people forget all the sacrifices that are made, not just by the people that lose their lives, but the sacrifices that families make, too.”
For those service men and women in harm’s way, the long list of sacrifices don’t have to include giving up the opportunity for the future that higher education can bring thanks to online programs like Lamar’s B.A.A.S.