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A Decade Later, Bouncing Back From 9/11

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Brandene Leys talks with her adviser at PGCC, who specializes in helping veterans.
David Schultz
Brandene Leys talks with her adviser at PGCC, who specializes in helping veterans.

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.

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