When Blondene Leys graduated from high school in Beltsville, Maryland ten years ago, she had a plan: she would join the Army, serve her time, then go to college on the G.I. Bill. And that’s exactly what she did.
It just took her about a decade longer than she'd expected.
"It was never in my plans to say, ‘Well, I’m not going to go to school,'" explains Leys. "I always knew I would be like 59 and like ‘OK it’s time for me to go to school now.’"
Leys enlisted in the Army in May of 2001. The 9/11 attacks happened just a few months later, when she was still in training.
"The drill sergeants, they were like ‘Y’all are going to war. I hope y’all know y’all going to war,'" she remembers.
A few years later, Leys shipped out to Iraq. She came home after a year, and had plans to return to the Middle East, when she received an unexpected surprise.
"I got pregnant right when I was going to re-enlist," Leys says. "I really just give it up to the parents who can just leave their children for a year at a time. That’s so hard. And I just couldn’t see myself pulling myself away from my newborn child and leaving for a year."
As it turned out, it was good she didn’t leave, because her son began acting strange. He wasn’t making eye contact, and he had stopped talking.
"At first I was kind of in denial," she explains. "And I’m so glad that I have a family that’s not afraid to tell me, like, ‘Look, ok? You need to face this and just get him tested.'"
Leys’ son was diagnosed with autism. With a special-needs child to care for, her dream of going to college was postponed indefinitely.
After a few years, Leys’ son started to get better -- much better. One night, she was chatting with another parent at his school when something was pointed out to her.
"And I just so happened to mention to someone that he was autistic," Leys says. "And they were like 'Really? I did not know that. He listens better than my child.’ (laughs) So I said, ‘Ok I’m going up to the college tomorrow.'"
The very next day, Leys went to Prince George’s Community College and registered for classes.
The birth of a child, a war and a world-changing terrorist attack ultimately couldn’t stop her. Leys plans to get her degree next year.