Liberty’s Hodges ready for civilian world
Tyler Takeda/The Madera Tribune File Photo Kayla Hodges works the ball around a defender for the Liberty Hawks in 2007. Hodges received admittance into West Point after graduation and will retire from the U.S. Army in December.
For the past 12 years, Liberty High School alumna Kayla Hodges has been engrossed in the military. Come December, she will enter the civilian world and plans to enjoy it.
“I’m cramming all the things I’ve wanted to do in a year like see national parks, meet people and take time to decompress” Hodges said.
Hodges, a former soccer player with the Hawks, graduated in 2008 and earned entry to the West Point Military Academy, the first for Liberty High School. She graduated from there in 2012 and has spent the last eight years working her way up the ladder in the U.S. Army.
However, Hodges looks back on her years at Liberty and realizes it gave her a foundation to what she is doing now.
“That was a very informative time for me,” she said. “I had a lot of really supportive people. I am so thankful that I grew up where I did and with the community that I had. A lot of people helped me out in a lot of different ways. I’m super thankful for that.”
Hodges also played soccer for the Hawks and was a valuable member of the team, playing defensive halfback for a successful run.
“Sports gave me a sense of team, which has been a big part of the things I’m doing now. It was a good environment,” she said.
Since Hodges sees the end of her Army career coming up, she has started a blog (A Captain’s Blog) to start writing again, something she did in college.
The Madera Tribune reached out to Hodges and caught up with her as she is transitioning out of the Army and preparing to enter the civilian world.
Tell me about West Point.
It’s a four-year university with a military flavor to it. I wanted to go to the Army and you’re a cadet for four years. You wear a uniform everyday. It’s pretty grueling and systematic. It’s pretty demanding. It’s intentionally mad to be like a pressure cooker, which isn’t necessarily the healthiest thing for sleep and stuff. It’s developed me a lot. I grew up a lot. It’s demanding academically. It’s demanding physically. You’re in a leadership position. It forces you to be a different person to be able to put up with a lot of stress.
What’s the toughest part of being at West Point?
The whole first year is a nightmare. We’re called plebes. You’re not allowed to talk outside the barracks room and the classroom. You can’t talk outside. You have to walk along the walls. You have to pick up and deliver the upperclassmen’s laundry. You have to serve all the food at the table. You have to cut up the pie in equal pieces. If it’s messed up, they throw it at you. I was very nice to the upperclassmen. You have to walk with your hands tucked and look straight forward. If you’re going from your barracks to class, you can’t talk to anyone unless you’re responding to an upperclassman. You can’t wear civilian clothes and can’t go off campus. There’s a lot of restrictions. You’re kind of like a prisoner on probation or something like that.
How did the discipline affect you?
It was kind of a shock to the system. You can’t drink or party, but the good news was I was never like that, anyway. Friends that did a lot of social things in schools, it was not the college experience they expected. For me, it was an adjustment. I wasn’t homesick. My roommate would cry every night in plebe year. For some people, it was rough. For me, for some reason, it wasn’t. It was my first time out of state. It wasn’t terrible. I don’t want to do it again.
What did you major in?
West Point originated as an engineering school, but moved towards liberal arts. I wanted to do political science and within that, international relations. To kind of hold onto the engineering side, they had everybody do an engineering tract or a minor so mine was environmental engineering, which was the easiest one and the one that interested me the most. It all worked out. I thought what had the least math. I wasn’t doing nuclear engineering. I got a bachelor of science in political science, which you normally get a bachelor of arts in. It’s so science-heavy, there’s so many chemistry and match classes I had to take than a normal liberal arts school. I also did farsi as a language. It’s completely useless to me now. I don’t plan on taking any vacations to Iran any time soon. I should have done Spanish.
When did you graduate?
I graduated a semester late (in 2012). Going into my senior year, my mom became terminally ill. I went home. 2011 School gave me a semester off. Three weeks later, she died. I thought I had to go back to get back to classes. But, it is so fast-paced there, there was no way I could catch up. So, I took the whole semester off. I graduated a semester late, which wasn’t a big deal. I had only 50 people in my graduating class instead of like 1,000. It didn’t bother me at all.
What did you do after graduation?
After that, I was the rank of lieutenant. I was military police. Within that, there are more specialized jobs for enlisted people. There were many occupational specialties. I was an officer, which is a manager. I chose military police, which guaranteed me a platoon leader spot because I wanted to be a platoon leader. I should hopefully get a a combat deployment. That would be cool. I went to bolc (Basic Officer Leaders Course). They are all over the U.S. Mine was in Missouri, which was not a good place. It was really cold and really humid. I was there for six months to learn how to be an officer. I was sprayed with pepper spray, which was absolutely terrible. After that, you go to your first duty station for about three to four years. Then, you enter into your job.
What was your job?
I ended up with military police. Since I was a lieutenant, I was waiting in the queue for a platoon leader spot. While you are waiting, you work on a battalion-level staff. You are learning the ropes of a battalion operation. When a leader spot opens up, you can wait for about 12-14 months depending on how many people are waiting.
What was your next job?
From there, I had 42 people I was responsible for from private to sergeant to corporal to staff sergeant. As an officer, a second lieutenant, you have an non-commissioned officer, an enlisted counterpart that is your right hand. They are a sergeant, first class. You are the mom and dad of the platoon. I am in charge of the strategy and training plans three to six months from now. You work with the company commanders of all the platoon leaders. There are usually three or four platoons in a company. They do all that with a commander. The sergeant is more focused on administrative stuff like pay, awards, discipline issues. There’s quite a lot. There’s some overlap. You kind of both know everything going on, but you focus on your stuff, too. I always knew what was going on with my platoon.
What were some of the places you went to?
I went to Liberia for an Ebola crisis in 2015 for a few months. It was the 101st Airborne Division out of Kentucky. They brought a task force to deal with Ebola in a humanitarian capacity. I was doing security for an Ebola treatment unit. I did security for mobile labs for army laboratories. It was an occupied building which would have a lab in it. I did security for mobile training teams for Liberian health care professionals. Our army doctors were training their doctors. That was a pretty cool experience. I did an academic trip to Rawanda. After I graduated, I went to Uganda for missionary work for about a month. I’ve been interested in Africa. After that, it was platoon leader time.
How as being a platoon leader?
You’re getting phone calls anything from pay or at 3 in the morning about a DUI. You have to go to the police station and pick him up. It’s stupid stuff like that, it’s the bad end, it’s babysitting. Privates. On the other end, there are rewarding things you get to do and meet a lot of interesting people. Soldiers are like people. There’s really good ones, there’s average ones and bad ones. You have to deal with all of them.
After platoon leader, what was next?
After that, the typical tract is to become an executive officer at the company level. You’re within a company when you are in a platoon. Above the platoon level is the company level and above that is a battalion level. After you are a platoon leader, you become a company executive officer. You become company commander’s right-hand man or woman, along with the senior enlisted officer, which is the company first sergeant. Then the company commander is the captain. I was the executive officer and you were responsible for logistics, money, budget, property accountability, equipment, food, movement if we go to training out of state. I did it for a year and my best friend took over for me.
What was the next job?
After that, I was a general’s aide. After the XO, you can do anything. It’s open-ended. I applied to be a general’s aide, which is a really cool job and I’m glad I did it. For me, it was a dude named General Brauer in Campbell, Kentucky. He was a one-star general and I went everywhere with him. I carried a backpack with all of his stuff like Diet Cokes and coins. He would give me a look, give me a hand signal and I knew I had to give him a coin. I took notes at meetings for him. I was a personal assistant for him. We would go to DC together and all over California. I would take care of all the rental arrangements. I would pick him up and drive him everywhere and make sure he was where he needed to be. They joke that we are the general’s handler. It was one of the most eye-opening job. It was easy, but it was high visibility. When I screwed up, everybody saw it. I sat in higher-level meetings and saw how decisions were made at the higher level. It got rid of some of the cynicism I had when I was a lieutenant.
After doing that, what was the next duty station?
After that, I went to captain’s camp. I went to back to the same place I went for bolc. You stay there for six months and then got to a new duty station. You put in your preferences and it goes by your rank in class. I chose to go to Fort Lewis in Washington, where I am now. My dad just moved up here. It’s a pretty popular one. I’m here now. I worked on battalion staff because it’s similar to how you wait to become a platoon leader until spots open up. You wait to become a company commander until a spot opened up. They already knew I was coming and had a spot open for me. It was just a matter of waiting on staff for a year before the spot opened up. I did that. I worked for a miserable human being who just got promoted to lieutenant colonel. There’s a lot of miserable people who take it out on subordinates and you can’t do anything about it. All the captains that worked for her, we almost collectively filed a complaint against her, but we were talked off the ledge. I was sad we didn’t because she just got promoted and she’s going to take over a battalion and drive people crazy.
How was becoming a company commander?
It has about 160 people. I had a first sergeant and an XO. For me, I was overall everything. There are so many things you are responsible for. There are 160 lives you are responsible for I would get calls from spouses telling me their drama and have to deal with that. If there’s abuse going on, I would get a call from CPS. I am responsible for every minute detail in these people’s lives. It’s pretty invasive, actually. In a normal job, no one cares who you are dating, what’s going on with your family, what establishments you go to. In the Army, you are a piece of equipment so the government is very interested in what they are doing. They are in their business about everything. It was very time consuming and I didn’t want to get into people’s business. You’re in meetings all day. It was just a lot. I had some really fun times. I deployed to a joint readiness training center in Fort Pope, Louisiana. It is a miserable armpit of America. It was wet and humid. I didn’t shower for a month. The National Training Center in Barstow is equally terrible. Then, there’s the Yakima training center where you’re there for a month. You have to move all of your stuff there. It’s more complicated because it’s the government. You are there for 30 days and then have to move things back. I’m responsible for all of this. Somehow, it’s always my fault. It sucks being responsible for everything. We were responsible for maintaining millions of dollars of equipment. Decisions have to be made all of the time. I have to take the recommendations, look at the context of the bigger picture, what’s good for the unit, what my boss wants and try to propose a solution and recommendation. I’m sick of making decisions. I’m sick of being the one in the room where they are looking at you about what to do. No matter what decision you make, you’re going to make people unhappy. By the time I was at the end of that, I was ready to get out. I was ready to get out for a long time, but I owed eight years.
Why did you owe eight years?
After college, you owe five years of active duty, but I owed eight because I was duped. I was an idiot for this graduate school program. For two years of my graduate degree, I would owe four years to the Army. That was a rotten deal. At the end of the eight years, it will be Dec. 21, 2020 and that will be my last day in the Army. As soon as I can get out, I did.
What are you doing now?
Now, I am interning. The Army offers a lot of transition programs for soldiers to try to reintegrate them to society and make them productive. You are on the government dime for everything. I’ve never had a real job. The last time I did a resume was in high school. They offer internships, apprenticeships, certifications and other things. For me, I was always interested in wildlife conservation. I found a fish and wildlife one sponsored by Colorado State University that’s at my duty station. This was the only installation they offered it at so thank goodness for that. The Pacific Northwest is a very good place to be with outdoorsy stuff with conservation stuff.
So, you are still in the Army?
I am still in the Army. My battalion commander released me for a 90-day internship. Since I am leaving, I can’t provide any real value. I don’t have any continuity and they can’t give me a project. The other day, I was kayaking looking for toads. I didn’t find any, but I kayaked all day. I did fire prep for control burning. I was bush whacking around an oak tree. I elected to as much as I could with everything. They are putting me wherever. I am learning a lot and meeting a lot of people. It has been the most chill thing ever. Along with coronavirus quarantine, I switched out of my company command time after 15 months. Right after that, coronavirus blew up in Washington and I dodged that bullet. IT has been a nightmare for commanders to have to deal with all of the information requirements. All of the tracking and a lot of madness that I have not had to put up with. I got several weeks of free leave, basically. I have this internship and 90-days of paid leave save. I’m taking all three months. It starts in September and goes to December 21. I’m having a grand old time now.
How does it feel to see the end of your Army career coming up?
I’m so glad to get a break. Chronic fatigue, stress, energy drinks, eating unhealthy, drinking 10 cups of coffee a day, waking up at 4:30 a.m., working out at 5:30, doing PT and then leaving at 7 p.m. then, you’re getting phone calls in the middle of the night. It’s the burden of being responsible of all this stuff. It’s really dysfunctional. A lot of the majors I have met have been divorced or have marital issues. They have stress, anxiety, physical issues, unhappy. I do not want to be like them. I’m not hanging around for that. I need to leave now. This is the time for me to leave. I’m been very lucky that the timing has worked out.
Would you do this again?
I don’t regret the path I took. I wouldn’t do it again. It made me who I am. That’s very important and I’m happy with who I am. I was miserable. There were bad times, but there were good times.
What are you planning to do when you get out of the Army?
I have a van. We’re going to do some planning with the van to live in it. The plan is to finish the build and take the van to Southern California. I’m going to focus on writing and reading. I feel like I’ve become illiterate in the Army. We get saturated with stuff that I had no time for my own intellectual development. I will have time for that now. I have a reading list that I have been developing for years. I’m going to be working out a lot and focusing on my physical health. We’re going to travel through the southern U.S. when it’s colder, the northern U.S. and Canada when it’s warmer. We’ll see how that goes. It’s about a year, plus or minus. I’m a planner and my boyfriend is not so it’s a good balance. I don’t want to plan every minute. I will get there when I get there.
So, you’re taking eight years of not being able to take a vacation into one whole year?
I’m cramming all the things I’ve wanted to do in a year like see national parks, meet people and take time to decompress. The year after is to go to some conservation volunteering. I’m looking at counter-poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking and stuff like that, things that were related to my job in military police. From an international political science perspective, poaching is very complex. All of that fascinates me. I’m trying to avoid the volun-tourism thing. I met someone that is doing conservation in Africa. I’m looking that and through some networking.