Hunkered down inside a tent parked in the Kuwaiti desert, Marine 1st Lt. Joe Finnigan struggled to be heard above the roar of a sandstorm. Forget that his satellite phone went dead three times and that his unit was days away from entering combat—Finnigan knew that when Harvard Business School wants to interview you for a place in their top-rated MBA program, you don't say, Sorry, I'll call back later. "I wasn't really nervous," says Finnigan of the 30-minute long-distance chat last March 13. "It was just something I had to do."

It was worth it: Two weeks later Harvard offered him a spot. But it's a small wonder he got to make the call at all. Finnigan, 26, shipped out to Kuwait from Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Feb. 7, just weeks after applying to grad school. Yet with no phone or e-mail at his disposal, the Boston College grad had no way of knowing that officials at the school were trying to contact him for an interview, despite attempts by his family in Georgia to get the military to deliver a message. Finally, with time running out for the interview deadline, Finnigan's girlfriend, Karen Karr, 27, a physical trainer from Laguna Hills, Calif., had an idea: "I was talking to my mom and she was joking about contacting the media, and then we both remembered there was a newspaper reporter with Joe's unit," says Karr. She e-mailed the reporter's paper, the North County Times, and pleaded for help.

Mission accomplished. Within days word reached the lieutenant, who borrowed a military phone to call Cambridge, Mass., from Kuwait—and talked his way into the Ivy League. "I hope business life has challenges like those I've faced in the Marines," says Finnigan, now in southern Iraq. "But I'm sure they won't be life-threatening."