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Air Force vet's journey includes ASU degree

Joseph Pullen
December 19, 2013

An attack on a U.S. military base in Iraq caused Josph Pullen to envision his life after service in the United States Air Force. 

"We got hit at Joint Base Balad and I fell about 60 feet with 70 pounds of gear on," said the former sergeant,  who served five deployments over a decade, including two in Iraq.

He survived the fall, but severely injured his shoulder. 

"So I was like, 'I have three kids, I know the money’s good, but I need to get this education because there’s a chance I might not be healthy when I come back, and I might not be able to work," Pullen said. "I need something to fall back on. So I need to get this education.'” 

That education would be with the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice in the College of Public Programs at Arizona State University. Pullen graduated in December 2013. 

"I know that it’s been a long road, but through everything, I always kept my eye on the end – the light at the end of the tunnel," said Pullen. "Every day is a closer day to it, and I made it, man!"

The long road began in College Park, outside Atlanta, a neighborhood where drug dealers and gangbangers held power. Pullen was mugged for his shoes and cap and got in fights with gangs. "I had my car jacked twice in Atlanta, held at gun point once," Pullen reflected. "I didn’t think I was going to make it to 21.” 

Pullen attended Americus High School in Americus, Ga., where he turned to sports as a way out. It earned him the kind of protection he didn't have before.

"You know, even the gang members were like, 'Hey man, get out of here. You don’t need to be here. You’re doing good, you got a chance to go somewhere, do something,'" said Pullen.

He did. Pullen left after high school graduation to play defensive back for Eastern Carolina University. He then transferred to a smaller school to get playing time. A partial scholarship helped. But at the age of 19, Pullen found out he was going to be a father. After his son's birth, he joined the Air Force to support his family. 

Pullen saw his family grow from one child to three – two boys and a girl. It was when he was thinking about their future that he realized he had more to accomplish. Stationed at Luke Air Force base, Pullen worked with security officers as a law enforcement dispatcher. The Air Force sergeant decided to use the G.I. bill to enroll at ASU. Pullen also joined the reserves and got a part-time job at Costco, in addition to committing himself to becoming a full-time student.  

“I knew I wanted a criminal justice degree, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with it,” said Pullen.

He soon found out. Pullen took a class in corrections that opened his eyes to the problem with offenders being released and committing new crimes. He also took a class – Race, Ethnicity and Crime – that had a profound impact. 

“The two classes pretty much molded me (to know) what I wanted to do,” Pullen said. “Recidivism rates are ridiculous in most, if not all, states across the U.S., and I decided I really want to try to help lower that.”

An internship with the U.S. Marshal’s Office followed. Pullen called the six months he served with federal agents a “great experience.” 

That also describes his time at ASU. From internship coordinator Robbin Brooks to his academic advisor, Karla Arias, Pullen credits school staff and professors for helping him obtain his degree.

“ASU has an awesome criminology department. I loved every minute of it,” he said.  

The feeling was mutual. 

“As a family man, he was very busy while attending school, but his work ethic wouldn’t let him do sub-par work,” said Coy Johnston, a lecturer in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “He earned high scores on assignments, including his group work. He was so enjoyable to watch in front of the class doing presentations.”

That’s because Pullen has a disarming smile that flashes whenever he speaks. 

“Joe lights up the room when he walks in with his smile,” Johnston said. “He has a friendly demeanor that is contagious. He made class fun. Regardless of the mood students started class with, they always left class feeling better.”

Pullen said he has every reason to smile. He’s the first in his extended family to graduate with a college degree, an accomplishment he is extremely proud of.

“Everybody was saying, ‘Oh you’ve been out of school for ten years, you’re not going to go back,’” said Pullen. “But I did. Not only did I do it, but I did it with a part-time job, a full-time job, Reserves time and three kids. It’s pretty much to tell my kids, ‘Hey,  if I can do it, you can do it. If Dad did it with all of this stuff on my plate, you better believe that you can do it with little or nothing on your plate.’”

Three months before graduation, Pullen was hired by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in north Phoenix as a correctional officer, a job he thoroughly enjoys. 

Reflecting on his long journey, Pullen said he can only smile about the outcome.

“If I could do cartwheels across the stage and back flips, I would, because that’s how I am going to feel. I can’t even put it into words really. Like, 'exuberating,' or some kind of crazy word.”