On the battlefield in Afghanistan – 7,300 miles from his stateside duty station in Fort Carson, Colo. – Sergeant First Class William Haaren decided it was time to focus on his future.

Thirteen years after joining the Army, while on his fourth deployment to a combat zone, Haaren began his college education, enrolling in Saint Leo University's online business degree program in management in July 2014.

"It needs to be done," says the 31-year-old air traffic controller, quite matter-of-factly.

And so began the first steps in preparation for his eventual transition to life outside of the Army.

Specialized training

Haaren, who grew up in Pensacola, Fla., joined the Army in July 2001, one month after graduating from high school.

In the Army, he learned to track, control and sequence airplanes, earning a variety of FAA certifications over the years. Today, he is one of a small group of Army air traffic controllers, though his duties during his most recent deployment comprised a different kind of air traffic control.

"My field is very small," he says. "There aren't many air traffic controllers in the Army."

Haaren was deployed with the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division in Afghanistan when he began his online studies. As the only air traffic controller in the self-supporting unit of 3,500 soldiers, he was on duty 24/7, responsible for the group's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) program – essentially flying cameras – as well as managing and deconflicting the airspace in the brigade's daily footprint.

"We managed artillery, mortars, helicopters – anything that flies into and out of the airspace – wherever our brigade would go," he explains.

Online learning during deployment: mission first

Haaren learned about Saint Leo University through a friend of his wife's who attended the university. It wasn't until he enrolled that he learned about the university's commitment to military personnel.

While he didn't go out of his way to bring his deployed status to the attention of his professors, "they noticed," he says.

On the one occasion that he thought his mission would force him to put his assignments aside, "they all gave me an extension," he recalls, adding that it wasn't needed in the end.

And the nearly 10-hour time difference with his professors at Saint Leo "was usually not a very big factor," he says, except Wednesday webinars, scheduled at 3:30 a.m., Afghanistan time.

Online learning stateside: family first

In October, Haaren returned stateside to his wife and two children, a 5-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter, born weeks before his deployment.

Ironically, Haaren says, time management – the biggest challenge he faced pursuing his studies while deployed – remains his biggest challenge back home in Colorado.

It's not surprising for the husband and father who makes family his number one priority.

"While deployed, school is secondary to the mission, but I was able for a good bit of time to be at work and do my schoolwork," he says. "Even so, there were times I would have to stop everything."

In Fort Carson, the demands on his time are different – working, training and spending time with his family, while pursuing his online studies – and often greater.

"While deployed I was given more leeway with my schedule," he says." At home, I no longer have that leeway."

Relishing time at home

While studying at home these days, Haaren is savoring the moments he gets to spend with his family. His unit is scheduled to deploy again in 2016, with no location or assignment specifics yet.

"It could be a variety of places, depending on what is going on and what is needed," he says.

Eventually, Haaren hopes to earn a second degree in aviation administration. He might consider a second career in aviation management, or perhaps become an entrepreneur; he's still working on his plan.

"Even in my field as an experienced air traffic controller, having a business management degree will give me a little bit of diversity and an edge," he says.

For now, though, in addition to his studies, Haaren says he is focused on the single, best thing about being back in the states: family.

Are you an active servicemember and a student enrolled in one of Saint Leo's online degree programs? Would you be willing to share your story? Contact Mary Beth Erskine at mary.erskine@saintleo.edu.

Image Credits: Militarist on Shutterstock and courtesy William Haaren