During a recent military flight from Afghanistan, where he supervises educational programs for U.S. troops, Paul Lovello was reminded that war is never far from the classroom. The manifest included five passengers and two caskets containing combat dead.
Travel by helicopter or convoy from his Kandahar headquarters to forward bases during his six-month civilian assignment was never without worry, either. The vehicles sometimes drew fire, though "nothing came that close," he said.
"There are a lot of bad guys; not everybody wants us there," he added.
Afghanistan is far different from Canisius High School, where he briefly was registrar before joining the Defense Department in 1976. But Lovello, 55, who came home last month to visit his mother, Frances, said the career change -- despite the danger -- has been worthwhile.
He oversees a little-publicized continuing-education program that allows Army troops stationed overseas to pursue college degrees. Classroom instruction is provided by American universities and colleges under contract to the government.
Satellites and computers present opportunities.
"We also offer a lot of distance learning," said Lovello, who soon will return to Kandahar for another six months of 12-hour days, seven days a week. "The Internet is a great equalizer."
Even a combat zone can be a good place to learn, he said.
"It's a captive audience, but if soldiers put their mind to it they can get a lot done," he said. "Some of them have a better chance to further their education than they would back in the states."
The course work, which ranges from liberal arts to general education, criminal justice, business and computer studies, can advance a soldier's Army career because college credits are worth promotion points. And it can provide a head start for those who eventually leave the service to enter civilian careers.
"These are young kids putting their lives on the line; it's great for morale, and they are tremendously appreciative. So it's extremely rewarding work for me," said Lovello, who graduated from Bishop Fallon High School and holds degrees from the University at Buffalo and Canisius College.
The job pays well, and the travel involved "is the best thing that ever happened," Lovello said.
For the first seven years of his 28-year defense career, he and his wife, the former Mary Burdick, lived in Germany. They were in Italy for 10 years before returning to the United States, where they have lived since 1996 in El Paso, Texas, near Lovello's office at Fort Bliss. Along the way, they raised three sons, all now in their 20s.
Lovello, who ran educational programs for members of the armed forces in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, said he is "not a political guy."
But he believes Afghans, particularly women, have benefited from the U.S. presence.
"From what I've seen, life is certainly better for people," he said.
"What we're trying to do there -- provide a better environment for them -- is admirable. I think all of us hope we leave the country in better condition than when we came."