By Brooke Brown
Sergeant First Class Liza Shackelton and Chief Warrant Officer Jim Shackelton are the epitome of the term ‘power couple’. Liza serves as Assistant Inspector General for the U.S. Army European Regional Medical Command and Jim is a Special Agent in the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command in Kaiserslautern, Germany.
After a combined seven deployments and 40 years in the military, both recently completed their bachelor’s degrees with University of Maryland University College. Together, they celebrated this milestone by marching hand-in-hand at UMUC Europe’s commencement ceremony on May 3.
While deployed to Iraq simultaneously in 2011, Jim was a commander in the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command’s Northern Iraq region and Liza served as a platoon sergeant and the senior medic at Forward Operating Base Warhorse.
Although their work was vastly different, seeing each other at the end of the day gave them strength. “It was the best deployment ever,” said Liza, who has deployed to Iraq three times, twice for 15 months each, “Regardless of all the mortars, I felt safe because he was there.” The experience was a far cry from average married life, “Living together and being shot at together by rockets and mortars is always interesting,” Jim said, “But we weren’t apart, which made life better.”
At FOB Warhorse, both completed large portions of their degrees online. Despite poor internet connections, unpredictable schedules, and long hours, classes remained a priority. Jim remembers taking his studies with him wherever possible, including flying out to a crime scene in Northern Iraq, “I carried my crime scene kit and one of my textbooks with me on the flight out there, along with my weapons and body armor,” he said, “I had a test coming up.”
Liza has taken the majority of her courses while deployed, enabling her mind to focus on the future while enduring the harsh realities of war. “You’re in a dangerous place, so you don’t want to be thinking about if something bad is going to happen. You want your mind to be thinking of something else,” she said.
While studying as a platoon sergeant, she set a strong example of making education a priority, inspiring several of her soldiers to take classes with UMUC. As a leader, she felt confident recommending the university, “The professors are very well prepared. I can feel that they really care for their soldiers,” she said.
Liza followed her dream of joining the Army in 1997, “I always wanted to be a soldier.” She began her degree while deployed to Bosnia in 2000, where UMUC had representatives and courses on-site. From Bosnia or Germany to various war zones, “All the bases I’ve been at, UMUC has been there,” she said.
Jim and Liza met in 1999 while stationed at NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Belgium. Attending his first UMUC class while on duty as a military police officer, Jim remembers having to abruptly leave to respond to an emergency. His professor displayed an understanding and flexibility that became the standard he would come to expect throughout his studies.
Since then, Jim served twice in Iraq and once in Kosovo, taking as many as 39 credit hours during one year of deployment. He recalled an unforgettable experience while studying during his most recent deployment: “I was trying to meet the deadline for an assignment and right before I turned it in we caught incoming fire and had to run to a bunker,” he said. “To tell my professor, ‘I was late because we were getting shot at,’ that was kind of surreal. Just the absurdity of my excuse – it’s not like, ‘my dog ate my homework,’” he laughed.
Planning to retire when Liza reaches 20 years in the Army, Jim and Liza intend to utilize their respective criminal justice and humanities degrees upon entering the civilian realm. “Because of our education, we’re going to be a lot more marketable when we retire. It will give us a better edge in the job market,” said Jim.
In her advice to active duty servicemembers, Liza stresses the importance of seizing the opportunity to get an education with military tuition assistance. “Don’t waste this chance to finish your degree. No matter where you are, there’s always a way to take classes,” she said. “As long as you don’t stop – one day you’ll finish.”
Now that this day has come for Jim and Liza, they feel a deep sense of accomplishment. “I’m very proud of myself and my husband for finishing,” said Liza. To get to this point, they relied on each other as a constant source of motivation, whether from across an ocean or in the same war zone. “He was always there for me in those moments when I wanted to stop,” she said.
When asked what he’s most proud of with this accomplishment, Jim smiled, “That we got to do it together. It’s a husband-wife team success.”