By Chas Henry
In an age when lots of enlisted service members have college diplomas hanging on the wall — and junior officers are often immersed in graduate studies — you might be surprised to learn about the early 1980s Joint Chiefs Chairman who was a respected lieutenant colonel before he completed enough credits for an undergraduate degree.
In May 1939, more than a year before he graduated high school in his native Minnesota, John Vessey, Jr. enlisted as a motorcycle courier in his state’s National Guard. In early 1941, his unit was called to active duty. A year later, the U. S. was officially fighting in World War II. Moving quickly up the enlisted ranks, Vessey was a first sergeant when the infantry division in which he served took part in bloody fighting at Anzio, Italy. His actions in that conflict led to a battlefield commission.
After post-war assignments in Germany and Korea, Vessey headed to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to study at the Army Command and General Staff College. But he still had not earned a bachelors degree.
Making long Army days longer, Vessey continued to spend time at night school — and completed lots of “correspondence courses” — pre-Internet distance learning that involved students receiving and sending school assignments by regular mail.
Finally, in 1963, he had accumulated enough credits to earn a bachelor of science degree from what is now University of Maryland University College. Having finally achieved academic momentum, Vessey — two years later — completed a master of science degree at George Washington University.
The general, who died in 2016, often said that the toughest challenge he ever faced in the military was being a first sergeant in combat. Completing a college education may have been comparatively less difficult, but earning it in the midst of a busy career that skyrocketed him to the nation’s top military post wasn’t easy.
In a recent news release, the University of Maryland University College referred to Vessey as “UMUC’s most distinguished alumnus.” On November 10, UMUC will dedicate a conference center ballroom to the later-in-life academic achiever who didn’t give up.