BY STEPHANIE HEINATZ
Extra ammo. Earplugs. Emergency supplies.
"And books," said Sgt. Miranda Summers, a Virginia National Guardswoman. "I would pack books into my flight suit. If we stopped somewhere to refuel or whatever, I would sneak it out."
She had to - if she wanted to finish up the classes she'd left incomplete at the College of William and Mary.
"Good thing I soldiered on," she said with a chuckle Friday, not long after flying home for a two-week leave from the war zone. Summers is originally from Indiana, but her family now lives in Maryland.
Come Sunday, she'll be in Williamsburg, where she'll trade her Kevlar and body armor for a black gown and mortarboard and join the nearly 2,000 students graduating from the college.
"And the beautiful thing about it is, unlike most seniors, I have a guaranteed job out of college."
The 23-year-old deployed to Al-Asad - the second-largest air base in Iraq - with about 300 soldiers of the Virginia National Guard's Sandston-based 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation in January.
They were activated on Oct. 19, 2005, halfway through Summers' final semester.
"When we started the Civil War class, she told me that there was a possibility she'd be called away to Iraq," said Scott Nelson, an associate professor of history who oversaw one of the classes Summers finished from
For fear that she'd be away from the classroom for two years before being able to get her degree, Summers was determined to finish, a move she called "one of the silliest things I thought I could do."
"We talked about how she'd be able to participate in the class and get the work done over there," Nelson said. "She had a lot of expectations about how this would work out."
Her expectations were a bit optimistic.
Army officials told Summers she'd have access to a library. The library turned out to be a collection of romance novels.
While she works as the Blackhawk machine gunner several times a week, her day-job, so to speak, is as a supply sergeant in an office-like setting with Internet access.
"When the threat level was elevated, though, she could only connect to military sites," Nelson said. She couldn't access course materials online. "But we understand how difficult it is to try and finish a semester here, much less in Iraq. She ended up responding to readings a few months later than the rest of the students did."
Better late than never, Nelson said, as Summers added a new perspective to the class.
"The way I teach the Civil War is pretty different," Nelson said. "I don't do it with the battles. I talk about the daily life of soldiers and civilians, of logistics and food and supplies.
"Because she was doing mostly supply, she knew exactly how similar Army life is in 2006 to the way it was in 1860. Dry food is still shipped in rations to soldiers."
And being in a war zone can still be stressful, scary and unfamiliar. "Sure, you're nervous," Summers said of each time she wrapped her arms around her machine gun. "You never know what's going to happen and there were times when I wanted to quit."
Long days of flying were followed by long nights of sitting on the edge of a small bunk, book in hand. Bunkmates were out playing UNO card games with comrades. Sleep was knocking at the door.
"I figured I would make the same sergeant's pay whether I had a degree or not."
But then, she said, she thought "about the people who worked harder to graduate than I did. I wasn't a double major. I wasn't going to school and going home to a family and kids."
No. Summers was just a young woman, fighting a war.