When their 12-hour workdays end, troops stationed in Afghanistan have a few hours to hit the gym, hang out with friends, play video games, relax.
Army Staff Sgt. Dysha Huggins-Hodge studied.
For nearly a year, she was a hazardous materials specialist by day, a student by night. She logged hour after hour in the computer lab, pulled all-nighters and became hooked on energy drinks.
She wanted straight A’s. She wanted to graduate within two years.
“Every minute of my free time was homework. Every second,” said Huggins-Hodge, 25, now stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. “I would Skype with my family, but at the same time on a split screen I would have my homework up.”
After her deployment last spring, Huggins-Hodge was determined to keep up with her classes at Anne Arundel Community College and finish her associate’s degree on time. And she did. Huggins-Hodge graduated Thursday night and gave the valedictorian speech. She plans to enroll at a four-year college next year to study administration of justice and social work. She eventually wants to earn a PhD.
She said she struggled to find a theme that would resonate with the range of graduates, which included midlife career-changers and retirees. The college awarded nearly 2,000 degrees and certificates.
“We all have our different circumstances and our different paths that led us here,” she said.
Huggins-Hodge enlisted in the Army in 2004 while in high school in Athens, Ga. She wanted to leave home but said she didn’t think college was an option.
The work was fulfilling, and she quickly climbed the ranks. When she was 19, she signed up for financial aid for college but then never enrolled in a class.
While stationed at Fort Hood in March 2007, she saw Clayton Hodge standing on the parade field. She was a sergeant, and he was a private. Normally, she never talked to guys with a lower rank than hers. But she hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch, and he had SweeTarts.
“Funny how that worked out,” said Hodge, 25, now a sergeant stationed at Fort Meade. “I think we would have met anyway, because of our personalities. . . . I’m not your typical military guy, and she’s not your typical military girl.”
They were married a few months later.
In July 2008, they were deployed to Afghanistan. Within a few weeks of arriving, Huggins-Hodge discovered that she was pregnant and returned to Fort Hood.
First they learned that their baby would be a boy; then they learned he might not live.
Fluid had backed up into his abdomen, ballooning his tiny bladder and damaging his kidneys. His abdominal muscles were as thin as paper. The condition is called prune belly syndrome, because after the baby is born and the fluid drains, the stretched-out stomach looks like a wrinkled prune.
Huggins-Hodge transferred to Fort Meade, where she had easier access to medical care for her complicated pregnancy.
Micah Hodge was born in February 2009, and even as he underwent numerous painful surgeries, he appeared happy and outgoing, his parents said.
Micah’s determination to survive — and, later, sit up and walk with his limited core strength — inspired his parents and relatives. Huggins-Hodge realized that her son had made an impact on more people in a month than she had in 23 years.
“That’s when I decided I needed to do something to better myself,” she said. “I have this to live up to.”
That summer, Huggins-Hodge visited the base’s education center and enrolled at Anne Arundel Community College, which has a partnership with the military. About 300 active-duty service members and veterans take online courses at the college.
Then last May, Huggins-Hodge returned to the Middle East. She spent one month in Qatar and then headed to Afghanistan for several months — first Kabul, then Bagram air base.
She carefully mapped out her study plan. The Army will pay for two college courses at a time, so Huggins-Hodge decided against taking two 15-week courses at once. Instead, she took several shorter, more intensive classes, two at a time.
“The schoolwork helped her a lot because when you deploy, you have to leave this life behind you,” her husband said. “You have to find something to occupy your thoughts.”
Even when sleep-deprived, Huggins-Hodge turned in every assignment. One professor had to piece together that she was in a war zone. Another received an e-mail from Huggins-Hodge that explained she would not be able to come to campus to take two proctored exams.
“It was almost apologetic,” said Louis L. Aymard Jr., who teaches psychology. “She said she didn’t want to use her service as an excuse.”
Instead of multiple-choice tests, Aymard logged onto Skype and asked Huggins-Hodge all 200 test questions. Both times, it was morning in his office and late night in her computer lab in Qatar. She was obviously exhausted, he said, but “spot on” with her answers.
“Of the 10,000 students I have dealt with, I can count on one hand the students I will never forget,” said Aymard, who has taught for 40 years. “Dysha is one of them.”
Back home in Maryland, Micah had several bouts of pneumonia. Last summer, Huggins-Hodge received a message from the Red Cross that Micah was no longer breathing on his own. She flew home.
“Almost the moment that I got back was when he started getting better,” she said. “It made me feel like he got sick because I left.”
After two weeks with her baby, Huggins-Hodge returned to Afghanistan. In October, Micah had abdominal muscle reconstruction surgery that lasted seven hours. Huggins-Hodge couldn’t be there, but she was on the phone with a nurse throughout the procedure.
This spring, as Huggins-Hodge prepared to return home, her husband told her a letter had arrived: Her 4.0 GPA made her a finalist for valedictorian.
But the last day to attend a selection interview was the same day she was flying home in late April. She didn’t want to do the interview; she just wanted to go home.
“My husband told me how important it was that I did do it, just because I had worked so hard,” said Huggins-Hodge, who ended up going straight to the interview from the airport.
“Just because you are a wife or you are a mother or you are a soldier or whatever it is that you have going on in your life, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t do more — that you can’t figure it out.”