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A Detour of Duty

By Francesca Di Meglio A military life is rarely peaceful. Just ask Tony Weatrowski, Navy personnel officer for the First Force Service Support Group at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. He was preparing to retire from the military and finishing up his first year in the Health Care Executive MBA program at The Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California in Irvine when he was called to duty in Iraq in the summer of 2004. Weatrowski was frustrated that he had to put his education -- not to mention his transition into the civilian world -- on hold, he says. But his country needed him.

Weatrowski had no choice but to go into the war zone. As a senior chief hospital corpsman, the 42-year-old helped oversee more than 400 U.S. Navy personnel who were with his unit in Iraq. His job was to help those on the frontlines get paid and fill out the right documents. He and his assistants garnered praise from high-ranking officials for reaching out to other units that lacked support and administering exams so soldiers in Iraq could compete for advancement.

The 40,000 military men and women who annually make the transition into civilian careers recently have become a target for business school admissions officers. From 1% to 3% of incoming MBA students at a select group of schools recently surveyed by Military MBA, a Salt Lake City-based education and employment network for military officers, have some sort of services background. Erik Charles, director of executive MBA programs at Irvine, says he selects one or two military personnel for the executive courses each year.

WIDE NETWORK. Military men and women are a natural fit at most MBA programs because of their leadership training. They take on management roles in and outside of the classroom and they get things done on campus, says Joe Fox, associate dean for MBA Programs at the Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis. About 12 to 15 military or ex-military personnel enroll in Olin's various MBA programs every year. A few Olin admits have had to delay enrollment while on active duty in Iraq.

Leadership isn't the only thing these military MBAs offer. Having a relationship with high-ranking officials allows the students to bring a whole other network to the B-school. They also happen to be in demand with Corporate America, adds Fox. And military MBAs will likely have bright futures: Their average compensation is $102,275, and they often have as many as three job offers at graduation, according to Military MBA.

But few of them actually get called to war in the middle of an MBA program, as Weatrowski, who is married and the father of two sons, ages 16 and 12, did. Following President Bush's declaration in May, 2003, that major combat in Iraq was over, Weatrowski thought he was safe from deployment. He signed on to the Health Care Executive MBA program in the hopes of moving into the corporate sector. But the military had different plans.

NEWS FROM HOME. For seven months, Weatrowski was stationed at Al Taqaddum Air Base, about 46 miles west of Baghdad and near Fallujah, which had been a hotbed of violence. Things only got worse when the Marines moved into the area in spring 2004 after four U.S. contractors were killed and their bodies mutilated by insurgents. Danger was all around Weatrowski, even if he could stay on the base to do his administrative job. "Not leaving the base can be construed as selfish," says Weatrowski. "But after 20 years in the military, I didn't want to go in Iraq."

He remembers the sound of the rockets and the drive-by shootings at the guard shacks. He kept a journal of every rocket attack -- the time of day, where they hit, the impact, how many people were hurt. To forget his worries, he ran and worked out at the gym. And he read everything from novels such as The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown to textbooks like The Strategy-Focused Organization by Robert S. Kaplan, which was given to him by Accounting Professor Joanna Ho just before he left.

Weatrowski says he wasn't lacking in support from the Irvine administration or his classmates. Thanks to e-mail, he was able to keep in touch with everyone. They sure missed him: "He's the kind of guy who did all the reading and told those of us who hadn't what we missed," says a classmate named Chelvakumar.

LEAVING THE FIELD. Before Weatrowski left, his friends in the program threw him a going-away party and gave him a basket full of goodies that included a digital camera, sunblock, and Oakley sunglasses. "One of my happiest moments is when he came back," says Charles. "I was really worried we would lose a student to the war." The administration allowed Weatrowski to complete his electives with his class when he returned in March, and he'll be heading back to campus to finish the core requirements that he missed with the incoming class in the fall.

Weatrowski, who ran a medical department aboard a military ship and has been a surgical technician, would like to stay in the health-care field. He says he'll have to first gain civilian experience. But he doesn't feel alone in his quest for a new career. "There's no end in sight to these deployments to Iraq, and a lot of people are second-guessing their position in the military because they don't want to go over there and die," Weatrowski adds.

Although Weatrowski says he supports the U.S. military, he discourages his sons from taking the same route. "I want them to go to college and enter a profession where there's potential to make money, and they have the freedom to change jobs at their discretion," he says. "The world is too unstable these days, and the military is not a safe place to be."

Apparently, this EMBA student got a lesson in the business of war -- and it was an eye-opener. But it should make him better able to take on whatever the many wars in business world throw his way. Di Meglio is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in Fort Lee, N.J.

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