GCU News Bureau
Dr. Stephen Lagerberg often had Zoom meetings after midnight to account for the 12-hour time difference between Afghanistan and Grand Canyon University.
But an April 2020 night at Bagram Air Base was no normal evening of doctoral research for the GCU learner and air traffic controller.
He was working a shift in the tower at Bagram when eight rockets were launched at the base. It was equipped with anti-artillery weapons, and they started going off.
“It looked like a scene out of a science fiction movie with red anti-artillery rounds firing in all directions,” Lagerberg said.
On another occasion, the building next to him was hit.
“This is an experience that I will never forget,” said the Navy retiree, who was working as a contractor.
“This attack was so intense that one of the air traffic controllers quit his job and flew home on the first available flight.”
“Just pure stubbornness. There was no stopping at this point,” said Lagerberg, who 18 months after that attack walked the stage at GCU for his doctoral degree in psychology. “A lot of people thought I was crazy.”
The Sandia, Texas, father of five, who this summer began teaching a GCU online course in abnormal psychology, was a constant worry to his wife, Tiffany. Attacks on the base happened about once a month.
“There were times I wouldn’t hear from him for days on end,” said Tiffany, who helped him send files for classes or act as his go-between, often late at night. “Whatever I have to do, I will do it. We knew it was going to be tough, but he was in the home stretch. And he is very determined.”
No one should have expected less from a man who enlisted in the Navy just before he turned age 35 because he wasn’t making enough money as a corrections officer in Kentucky.
“I was 35 in boot camp with 18-year-olds,” he said.
What Lagerberg found in the service was just what the self-described adrenaline junkie needed. He ascended to petty officer first class as an air traffic controller, directing landings of military planes on moving ships in the middle of Gulf or orchestrating heavy incoming traffic at an air base.
“It can go from zero to 100 real quick when all of a sudden 10 planes pop up. It can be a roller-coaster ride,” he said. “It’s like playing chess. You have to think several moves ahead.”
One airplane 20 miles away is traveling 250 knots, and another 10 miles away is traveling 100 knots. Which gets there first? It’s a math problem, on the fly, in three dimensions, with high stakes.
A surgeon has one life in his hands. Lagerberg could have had 200 passengers aboard a plane.
During this intense job, Lagerberg still plowed through his education, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at what was then Ashford University before enrolling in his doctoral studies in 2016 at GCU, which aligned with his values, he said.
“I’ve always really pushed myself to the limit,” he said.
After retiring from the military in 2019, he continued as a contractor in Afghanistan in the middle of a war zone. And that’s where his ideas formed for his dissertation, “Burnout in Military-Trained Air Traffic Controllers.”
“What I found is, regardless of where people are in their careers, everybody I knew had it or had encountered it. The burnout would last for months or years,” he said. “It is one of the most stressful jobs in the world.”
But with rigid physical and mental requirements for the job, controllers often are reluctant to consult a doctor, Lagerberg said.
He was working six days a week, 10 hours a day, on shifts that rotated from daybreak to overnight, while juggling his studies. Things intensified when the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan started last summer.
His work attire was a helmet and Kevlar as the action increased and planeloads of weapons and personnel flew out before the base was turned over.
“It got really bad. We were attacked on the tail end of it, while we were getting ready to leave,” he said.
His dissertation committee chair, Dr. Randy Lane, said it was technologically difficult to communicate with Lagerberg, but they got it done with emails and late into the night with Zoom meetings.
"He was able to successfully defend his work and once he was approved, not only was he happy, I, too, was extremely happy for him to have finished under grueling circumstances," Lane said. "I was very proud of his accomplishment. He and I shared a particular honor, having both served in combat areas during our military service."
As one of the last to leave the skeleton crew in the tower, Lagerberg came back to a relieved family and put the finishing touches on his dissertation, which was approved in November.
His family knew when he started something, he had to go all the way.
“They had to sacrifice as well,” he said. “The amount of time I was putting into the work I was doing, it was definitely a sacrifice.”
Two of his children, Amaris Lagerberg and Aaron Chances-Lagerberg, were following his lead, taking dual enrollment courses in high school and at GCU and exploring the University as a future option.
They all made the trip to Phoenix in April for graduation.
“It was special for us to be on the campus and show them everything is possible,” Tiffany said. “Look at your father. Don’t let anything stop you. Even in a war zone he was typing away at a dissertation.”
Lagerberg walked across a Commencement stage for the first time since high school.
“It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” he said.
He isn’t stopping. He’s working in the tower at McAllen International Airport and just began teaching his GCU class.
“Being able to give back the university that gave me so much and help the next generation move forward is amazing,” Lagerberg said.
“I think the biggest thing to instill in them is if I can do it – with all the challenges I was facing – anybody can get it done. You just gotta want it.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.