As a Hilarian, she was taught to be of service to her community while achieving and sustaining academic excellence. And, as a member of the enlisted corps in the US Air Force, Ayana Simone Hodges has been able to live those ideals.
With the Air Force’s core values of Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do, Hodges has found a mirror to the ideals and principles she was introduced to as a child.
“I have been grateful to have had numerous opportunities to build partnerships within communities in the States and abroad, mainly through outreach efforts focusing on disadvantaged children and youth and events aimed at strengthening relations with our host nation,” she told WMN.
Now, after 21 years of service, Hodges has been promoted to senior master sergeant (SMSgt), a rank which by law, is only granted to two per cent of the Air Force.
But going into military service was not her intention when she left TT at age 16. Back then, she had planned to study business and entrepreneurship, and be with her father and older sister who worked and studied in Long Island, New York.
She graduated from Bishop Anstey High School in 1999 and did the SAT exams (for US college admission). She was looking forward to starting her tertiary-level education at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Virginia, as well as to spending time with her father, Anthony Stewart-Gilkes, who had moved there two years before in order to advance his career opportunities, and sister who was studying there.
Things did not work out as she had planned because circumstances changed. Instead, she found herself drawn to the idea of travelling, adventure, health benefits, education, and camaraderie, while making a positive impact. Her cousin, retired Lieutenant Colonel Vanessa Matthews-Grant was a captain in the Air Force at the time and, after doing some research, she decided to join thinking she could ask Matthews-Grant for any advice if necessary.
“I’ve always been someone who loves adventure and trying different things. Anything to do with travel, meeting different people, seeing new cultures, that has always been my thing thanks to my mother, Kathleen Stewart-Gilkes, who, from a very young age, exposed my sister and myself to different countries and being very open-minded to people in general.”
So, in 2000 at age 17, Hodges, who is a US citizen, joined the Air Force.
She told WMN she thought herself fit and did not think the Air Force would be as physically demanding as the army or marines. In TT, first in St James, Belmont and then Chaguanas as her family moved, she played tennis, danced, and was generally very active.
At five years old she started playing the piano and fell in love with classical music. She began classical training and continued until age 16. At age seven, while attending Sacred Heart Girls RC, she started taking ballet and modern jazz classes with Heather Henderson Gordon and continued dancing with Carol La Chapelle. In addition to the piano, she studied the steelpan and voice at Pan Piper’s Music School in St Augustine under the tutelage of Louise MacIntosh.
“I’m not somebody to shy away from a challenge or meeting people or immersing myself into something different. So, I said to myself, ‘okay, I’ve done all these things. Even though this will be something new, I think I’ll be okay.’ But I wasn’t ready for it. It was pressure!”
She said basic training taught her how to follow instructions while paying attention to details. But most importantly, it taught her and her fellow recruits to work as a team.
“You as an individual are not going to be good at everything. You might be good at one thing but your teammate might be good at another. If you come together and identify everyone’s strengths and help each other out, then you spend less time getting your things organised. It’s about getting you to see yourself as an airman and not as a civilian and to operate as a unit.”
She described the time as different and challenging but rewarding, and that feeling has continued throughout her career. Some of those challenges stemmed from her being a woman, a West Indian, or a person of colour. They caused “major setbacks” in her career and had a negative impact on her, but she was able to stay positive and continue to grow individually and professionally thanks to her faith, family and a strong network of extended family.
“I was able to remain positive, maintain a firm belief in myself, and turn a negative situation into a positive outcome. While difficult at the time, I believe these unfortunate experiences helped prepare me to be a positive role model for others who might find themselves in similar situations.
“I am happy to say the Air Force as an organisation has identified its shortcomings and is making great strides to build a strong diversity and inclusion initiative across the enterprise; something I am very passionate about and proud to be a part of.”
Another unexpected but positive turn was meeting the father of her two children in the military. Her son, Jaylen Hodges, 13, is “a wizard” with animals and science, and daughter, Jayla Hodges, ten, is also highly intelligent and interested in the arts.
Hodges said at times military life can be difficult for her and her children, particularly when they are separated due to deployment or being stationed in another country. Over her career, she has had deployments and assignments to Kansas, Las Vegas, North Carolina, Arkansas, Pakistan, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, Afghanistan, Germany, and South Korea where she is currently stationed.
“Without a doubt, as a mother, it has been challenging to be away from my children for months at a time, or in some cases over a year. Technology has assisted in easing that burden, but navigating time differences in an effort to communicate on a consistent basis is an ongoing challenge.”
The children’s father is a contractor in Kuwait and cannot assist, so when she is deployed or has remote assignments where family is not permitted, her relatives step in. They either stay with her sister, Nneka Green, in Virginia or in Trinidad with her family. And when stationed in the US, or whenever family is allowed, they moved with her.
“Everything that I do, I do for my kids. At the end of the day I know I’m doing this, making sacrifices, for their best interest and it has and will continue to benefit them.” They have had many opportunities many children have not. They have travelled and been educated in other countries, attended the best schools, and experienced many different cultures.
“I am extremely blessed and extremely grateful to have the type of family support that I do. It’s not often that a military member’s mother retires to support you when you have your first child, leaves their home country and flies to a different country to spend up to six months at a time every time their child needs support. And my mother has done that for me throughout my entire career.”
Hodges’s records went to the Air Force board in January; she was selected for the position of SMSgt on March 16. She has no intention of transferring from the enlisted corps to being an officer because she has a passion for people and prefers to deal with them in a more “hands on” capacity.
“While I have to say I am filled with nothing but utter admiration and respect for our senior leaders and policy makers, my strength lies within my abilities to train, mentor, motivate and develop our airmen. As an enlisted leader I have the ability to directly contribute to the growth of the younger airmen regardless of their career field.”
She said the Air Force provides her with the space and resources to develop and uplift airmen and help them reach their full potential while cultivating essential resiliency skills.
“That brings me tremendous joy and satisfaction. The fact that I am able to work with people from varied backgrounds and cultures as well as different agencies and organisations has enlightened my experiences and broadened my perspective on team dynamics and team building.”
She is a wing inspections team member, master resilience trainer, and diversity and inclusion facilitator for the wing, helping to promote, educate and ensure a culture of respect and dignity throughout the organisation.
She is also a sustainment services flight superintendent who oversees the logistics and day-to-to operations of three dining facilities, two hotels, a post office and a state-of-the-art fitness facility. This has allowed her to pursue her interest in business, as the position allows her the freedom to be creative and expressive while providing products and services which satisfy consumer needs and enhance overall purchasing power.
“Additionally, nothing excites me more than analysing, solving problems and seeing a process successfully completed from start to finish. And multiple leadership and management courses have been afforded to me as a benefit of being a member of the US Air Force.”
Hodges would love to be a United Nations ambassador when she retires. She also intends to continue working in her community, developing young people, while being an active Hilarian alumni supporting Old Hilarian Association endeavours and projects.
“It is important for us all to recognise no matter where folks may come from, or what they might look like, their value is immeasurable, and we were all created for a higher purpose. So never judge a book by its cover, but rather strive to see how someone’s gifts and talents can be utilised for the greater good. This will require that we aspire to see beyond the surface or beyond that exterior layer.
“Additionally, keep faith in whatever you believe, for anything is possible with hard work, dedication, and perseverance. Dare yourself to see each obstacle as an opportunity to grow in that moment for what is yet to come. Essentially, learn to embrace all forms of adversity. Lastly, be fearless in the pursuit of that which sets your soul on fire and unapologetically, spread your wings and fly!”