FORT IRWIN, Calif. – When Command Sgt. Maj. Dedraf Blash, Weed Army Community Hospital’s senior enlisted advisor, joined the Army in 2000, she had some college courses under her belt but no degree.
However, with hard work, dedication, and encouragement from family, friends, and leaders over the years, she earned her doctorate in strategic leadership May 14.
Her accomplishment didn’t hit her until she was walking across the stadium at her commencement ceremony and saw her family and friends in the stands, she said.
“It’s overwhelming because for my family, we have somebody with a doctorate degree,” Blash said. “[They can say] ‘she made it, she’s not her circumstances.’”
After giving birth at a young age to her daughter, Blash later joined the Army at 28 years old.
Blash restarted her education journey three years after joining the Army not only because of guidance from her leaders, but because of advice from family.
“My mother and my grandmother have always taught me that education is something that no one can ever take away from you,” Blash said. “Take advantage of that.”
Blash said she took many breaks in her education journey through the years, but continued to take college courses when she could.
She continued her classes while encouraging her daughter to attend college.
“I wanted her to go to college, so trying to motivate her to go to college I said ‘if you go to college, then I’ll go to college too’”, Blash explained.
Blash earned her associate degree in 2013 and her bachelor’s and master’s while attending the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy in 2018, where she and her classmates would encourage each other, she said.
“We would motivate each other, so when we finished our bachelor’s degree, we were like ok, let’s sign up for our master’s degree,” she said.
Blash and her classmates would attend the Sergeants Major Academy during the day, then tackle their civilian college courses at night, which became a battle rhythm, or schedule, for her, she said.
“Time management was the key to everything and getting that battle rhythm,” she said. “That’s something that I learned along the way in the Army is…. you have to have that battle rhythm of doing things because if you don’t keep up with that battle rhythm, then things fall by the wayside.”
Once she completed her master’s degree, Blash decided to continue on to a doctorate degree.
“I was already in the battle rhythm of going to school and at the time my children were grown and it was just me, so I was like why stop now?” she said.
Blash admitted there were times she wanted to quit.
“There were lots of times that I would pick up the phone and call my closest friends and say what am I doing? I just want to quit,” she said. “Of course, they would motivate me and remind me, ‘You’re doing this for you.’”
Another motivation for Blash were her grandchildren, who would show her their report cards in exchange for her showing her grades too, she said.
“Hopefully it teaches them you’re never too old to accomplish any dream that you have and just keep pushing,” she said. “Even if it’s one class at a time, even if it takes you 20 years to get there, just keep moving forward.”
Blash said she specifically chose to pursue a degree in strategic leadership to tie into her role in the Army.
“It actually teaches you about people and how to deal with people and different types of leadership styles,” she said. “It teaches you about policies and regulations and the way people work and the culture of people … what better environment than this healthcare facility to do so?”
Blash also praised Army education programs including tuition assistance.
“I didn’t take out any student loans, it was all tuition assistance and my Army Post 9/11 GI Bill that paid for [the degrees] and I can still go to school again, which I am going to do because I’m a lifelong learner,” Blash said. “For me, my mom said be a jack of all trades, never stop learning.”
Since active duty Soldiers can only use tuition assistance up to a master’s degree, in order to pursue her doctorate, Blash began using her Post 9/11 GI Bill.
Blash recommended Soldiers take advantage of installation education centers, which helped her navigate through her degree programs and the transition from tuition assistance to her Post 9/11 GI Bill.
Jacqueline Rodriguez, an education services specialist with the Fort Irwin Education Center, said Soldiers with any education questions should visit education centers.
“A lot of people don’t know how to begin, and I would say the first step is coming to us because we’re definitely the experts and we want to make sure that the Soldier understands what they need to know and how they can go about finding the school that fits their goals and their needs,” Rodriguez said. “We are here to be that neutral party and help them understand that process because we know it can be very intimidating.”
Some of the resources at the Fort Irwin Education Center include education counselors, a transition education counselor, the Basic Skills Education Program (BSEP), College-Level Examination Program testing, and more.
Fort Irwin also has a Desert University Memorandum that Soldiers can get approved by their command and allows them to get off work early two days a week to attend classes.
“We have received a lot of support from the [Fort Irwin and National Training Center] leadership with regard to education,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said it’s important for Soldiers to understand they have $4,000 per fiscal year available to them to use for tuition costs or other costs if they are getting a credential.
“Now the Army has put out the Credentialing Assistance program, so if a degree is just too overwhelming right now, there is funding that is available to help pay for credentials just so you can get the ball rolling and build that confidence,” she said.
Some credentials Rodriguez said she has seen become more popular include CompTIA Network+, CompTIA Security+ and CompTIA A+.
Soldiers can use the Army Credentialing Opportunities On-Line (COOL) website to look up their military occupational specialty and see what credentials align.
“The Army COOL website has over 5,000 certificates and credentials and any of those credentials in that repository are eligible to receive that type of funding,” she said.
Soldiers can also combine tuition assistance with any costs accrued with credentials as long as the combined cost doesn’t surpass the $4,000 per fiscal year, Rodriguez added.
“Tuition Assistance covers specifically tuition, but for credentialing, if there are study materials that you have to purchase as part of your training, you can utilize it if you have the funding available to purchase that,” she said.
Many Soldiers who didn’t want to pursue college before they joined the military may not realize how ready they are to start taking civilian education classes, Rodriguez said.
“Now with a lot of the things that they take on and the resilience that they build as a Soldier, taking on a class here or there builds that confidence, and they find that they are a different person, and they can definitely achieve more than what they think they can,” she said.
For more information, contact the Fort Irwin Education Center at 760-380-4218 or visit Building 1020 3rd Street.