Business graduates face many problems but the destruction by rocket of the office is not usually among them. Group Captain Dean Andrew, aged 41, takes such occupational hazards in his stride, as he gets on with his current job of making Basra airport fit to hand back to the Iraqi people.

The job's dangers, he says, are outweighed by its rewards: "You only have to look at the faces of the Basrawis. We're returning their destiny to them after 27 years of conflict."

Andrew, who joined the RAF at 18 and has spent most of his career flying Tornados, often on operations over Iraq, is one of many soldiers, airmen and sailors who have taken an MBA during or after service. He started his with the Open University Business School in 2000 and completed it three and a half years later. "I could see that the military was changing and I wanted to learn new techniques. We needed to become financially tighter.

"The coursework covered a far greater breadth than I expected," he says. "Finance and strategy were no surprise but I did a large elective on innovation, transformation and change – and the thing that really interested me was culture, both national and corporate."

The MBA introduced Andrew to ways of influencing change. While running the Tornado squadron he supervised a programme that reduced manpower by 17 per cent while increasing output by 33 per cent.

In Basra there are many stakeholders – national, provincial, military and civilian. "I am operating in a totally different culture here but I can understand what motivates people. The MBA taught me to think about problems in the way they would.

"Why is it important, for example, that the airport has pot plants? From a western perspective, it's not. But part of the Arab mentality is that it's got to look good as well as function."

A good course has a double benefit for a serviceman or woman, says Graham Clark, director of the executive MBA programme at Cranfield School of Management, "It makes them more effective when they are in the services and helps them find more interesting, lucrative work afterwards."

Cranfield's contract with the Ministry of Defence to be the academic provider for a range of activities was renegotiated about three years ago, at the request of the students, to make the MBA less "military". Shrivenham's Masters of defence administration was phased out and in came Cranfield's MBA (defence), run mainly at the school's Bedfordshire campus.

"The students were desperate to get any contact with the commercial world," Clark says. "Now they're mixed in with students from a whole range of backgrounds."

Twelve serving officers (though none from the army) and three MOD civilians are currently taking the Cranfield MBA. The average age is 34. The students, Clark says, operate in an increasingly commercial mid-world between the combat forces and the private sector. They need the skills to deal with that.

"When they come they know more than they think about the world of management. No one survives in a military environment without knowing how to deal with people, which is one of the key issues of any leadership training.

"The biggest problem for part-time MBA people is that they can be sent to Afghanistan at the drop of a hat. But then, some commercial employers also sometimes ask students to put their customers ahead of their MBAs."

Cranfield officers have their MBAs paid for by the MoD. Others have to take more of a risk. Until 2000, Mark Ospedale, aged 40, was in RAF Helicopter Aircrew, serving on a number of frontline operational squadrons in different theatres. When he left the Force after 12 years, he did some change management in the health service before funding himself through a full-time one-year MBA at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School.

"It was a big life-changing decision – I was leaving a well-paid job – but I went for somewhere where I could afford to learn without facing complete destitution at the end of it. It was worth doing. It taught me finance, and gave me a holistic perspective on business. Also, I found that my military experience had taught me some natural leadership tricks. And it was great fun."

When he came out of the MBA, Ospedale realised that he enjoyed being committed to something he valued. "In the forces there's a rationale for why you're there. That was the attraction of the voluntary sector for me, even though the two jobs are poles apart."

Ospedale is now deputy HR director for Action for Children, one of Britain's biggest children's charities, with over 6,000 people. "We're going through a massive change programme which involves a lot of the skills I picked up on the MBA. For example, it teaches you to recognise what other organizations are doing, which models they're following. The baseline MBA skills stay with you – you think wide rather than narrow."

The financial risk he took may soon be eased for others. The Government is promising free university or college education at the end of their military careers to armed forces personnel who have served for more than six years - and that could include MBAs.

'I'd had no private sector experience'

After 16 years with the Army, Major Ben Hollister officially became a civilian last month.

For some soldiers civvie life comes as a shock, but Hollister has planned it like a campaign. He has been networking for a year while taking an executive MBA at Lancaster University Management School, and now joins an HR outsourcing company as a manager.

"I'd had no private sector experience in the Army – I'd been at the tip of the spear, not the handle. I needed a kind of universal translator to give me the vocabulary. An MBA was the obvious answer.

"I've met a complete cross section of people. I haven't become a chartered accountant but I've learnt the language. And I figured that if I could deal with being shot at I could deal with a recession."