SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
Getting an education is among the motivations for many who serve in the nation’s armed services today.
That wasn’t necessarily the case for Michigan native and University of Michigan alum Lt. Col. Thomas “Keith” Wilson, Joint Task Force-Space Defense, Assistant Director of Intelligence.
During the day, Wilson worked as a law clerk and at night completed the majority of his Political Science and History major coursework. After graduation, he got certified to teach 7-12th grade students and began teaching high school social studies. His role grew when he established his school’s Junior Reserves Officers’ Training Corps program.
“Then I started to wonder, I’m talking and teaching about a world I haven’t really seen so I decided to join the service,” Wilson said. “I figured I’d serve four years and then go back to teaching.”
That was 20 years ago. In the meantime, the intelligence officer has supported a variety of missions including airborne intelligence and signals intelligence, completed a squadron command tour and worked in a variety of operations centers before arriving at his current assignment in the fall of 2020.
During his assignment at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., the nearby Creighton University was offering 50% tuition for military members. When combined with tuition assistance, it came out to a couple hundred dollars per credit hour prompting Wilson to pursue his master’s degree in International Relations.
“I was able to finish my core classes during my assignment there and finished my thesis later,” he said.
Now two degrees in, the intel officer was selected for Air Command and Staff College in-residence to meet his intermediate development education milestone, a point at which an unexpected opportunity presented itself.
“A pathway was opened up where you could get your doctorate,” said Wilson. “It’s typically reserved for faculty teaching at the military’s institutions. I was thinking there was no chance but lo and behold I got picked up.”
The Air Force Institute of Technology sponsors selected candidates who then work directly with schools to find programs that are compatible with the Air Force’s requirements of completing the program within three years and within financial constraints. Wilson chose Indiana University in Bloomington as the best option for him and his family.
Doctorate programs typically take five to seven years so three years is challenging.
“I get it, as a tax payer I don’t want to take too much time on education when there is work to be done,” said Wilson. “I counted each day as a blessing but it was also daunting. I haven’t worked in many slow-paced, casual jobs-they’ve all been high demand, but this was no softball assignment.”
Wilson said it was typically 12-14 hour days, reading more than 150 pages of text a day which then had to be synthesized in order to be prepared for the next day’s classes. The first two years is filled with coursework. The third year is then dedicated to comprehensive exams and the research project.
“The exams cover all affairs across the entire field, all perspectives and paradigms, you get one day to make your case that you’re proficient,” said Wilson. “Most people fail at least one of the exams but I passed both of them on the first attempt.”
Now focused solely on his dissertation, Wilson worked to establish his four-member committee and began his data gathering.
“It didn’t bear out the way I thought it would,” he said. “It wasn’t insurmountable but it cost me a whole lot of time so I was leaving the program after three years in good standing but having not met the objective. That was a gut punch but I knew I had done everything possible to meet objectives.”
Returning to his career field, Wilson had been selected for O-5 and needed to complete both Air War College correspondence and Air Command and Staff College and his doctorate. Based on a mentor’s guidance, Wilson prioritized Air War College and was soon thereafter selected to command the 29th Intelligence Squadron – neither of which was conducive to quickly completing his doctorate.
“Squadron command was a break-neck pace job,” he said. “I didn’t move quickly [on his doctorate] but I kept moving it along.”
In July, Wilson arrived at the JTF-SD and began in-processing and the appropriate security processes before attending core academics training.
“I was grinding, putting hard work in the evenings and on the weekends,” he said.
In mid-November he prepared to defend his dissertation to his now five-member committee. He prepared 120 potential questions he could face then set up mock dissertations with family and friends. For each session he dressed and presented his project as he would on the actual day.
“It went really well, I felt pretty comfortable,” he said. “I spent most of the time defending the research field itself rather than my actual work which was interesting.”
After a few weeks he was notified he had earned his PhD, joining 4.5 million Americans as of 2019 Census data. Across the Armed Services only about 109,000 have advanced degrees, masters and doctorates included, according to Statista data for 2019.
“It was pretty cool, I never expected to have that opportunity,” he said. “I always tried to perform well to put myself in positions to seize opportunities but I’m lucky.”
Though his education doesn’t directly tie to the work he does for the JTF-SD, he said he uses the processes daily.
“Thinking through problems, working through arguments, challenging thoughts and the rigors of process help us no matter what function we’re doing,” said Wilson.
Additionally, Wilson pursued education at each level while working full time and supporting his family which includes his wife, whom he met in high school, and raising two girls who are now about the age of his former students.
“That’s one of the cooler things, it’s taken a while but I hope it inspires them,” he said. “They have been supportive throughout, with the military and school I’ve missed things throughout their formative years but my hope is they use it to inspire them to achieve their goals.”
Wilson has no intention of pursuing any additional degrees, yet.
“I am not entirely sure what triggered my desire to serve,” Wilson said thinking about his start 20 years ago. “I recall being driven by a desire to contribute to something bigger than myself. I am happy, my family is happy, there’s no reason to change. I am thankful to the countless people along the way who helped mold me into who I am today.”