Dawson County High School graduate Robert Dean knew he'd have a hard time making a living without a college degree.
"With the way the economy is, it's hard to make a living without a piece of paper from a university," he said. "I wanted to go to college, but I wasn't sure how it was going to get paid for."
The U.S. Air Force is helping him fulfill that dream.
"I'm serving my country and I'm taking online classes to earn a degree," said the 21-year-old, who entered the service in August 2009.
With an E-3 Airman First Class rank, Dean is currently stationed at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Wash., Dean is an aircrew flight equipment technician, assigned to pilot survival equipment.
"I work on the pilots' helmets, night vision goggles, any survival equipment, flotation devices like life rafts, oxygen equipment on the aircraft, any chemical gear they use, and I also pack parachute," he said.
While Dean has several members in his family that have served in the military, including a great-grandfather who was a captain in the Army during World War II and an uncle who was a paratrooper in the Korean War, he said their service did not affect his decision to enlist.
"I'm very proud of them and what they accomplished in serving our country, but I tried to keep a clear head and make my own decision," he said.
Dean said he joined to gain character and find out who he was.
"You have to continuously challenge yourself in life in order to better yourself," he said.
Dean said his military service has lived up to those expectations.
"I have met some great people and been to places I would have never been before," said Dean. "It's easy to get complacent and forget how much people sacrifice."
Dean said he thinks the real heroes are the men and women serving on the front lines.
"They are literally fighting for our country," he said. "I graduated with a couple guys that joined the marines and not a day goes by that I don't wonder where they are and how they are doing."
Dean has not made a decision on the length of time he will remain in the service.
"It makes sense financially to make it a career, but right now there are other things I want to do in life," he said. "I want to get involved in agriculture and hopefully obtain a Poultry Science degree from the University of Georgia."
Dean is the son of John and Debbie Dean of Dawson County. The family has lived in the area for 23 years.
Dean is married to Katie Free Dean.