After graduating from Hutchinson Central Technical High School, Chanthini Taylor-Dixon wanted to escape the cold Buffalo winters. College in Florida sounded like a great idea.
But by her junior year at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, the biology major realized she would need more cash if she was going to complete her education.
"I enlisted in the Army for the opportunity of the GI Bill," said Taylor-Dixon, who veered away from her science education to become a military police officer.
Taylor-Dixon's duty took her to Washington, D.C., and her work as an MP sometimes placed her in proximity to powerful people. They included then-President Ronald Reagan and three former presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. There was also Vice President George H. W. Bush, who would later become president.
"It was very exciting and enlightening," Taylor-Dixon said. "I also got to see Army General Colin Powell and other generals."
After completing eight years of active duty, she continued to live in the D.C. area, serving on the home front as a wife and mother of three children. But when her marriage ended in divorce, she moved her family to Buffalo and again turned to the military as a way to help support her family.
Taylor-Dixon enlisted in the Army Reserves in June 2001 and three months later America began its global war on terror following the Sept. 11th attacks.
Chanthini Taylor-Dixon, 55
Hometown and residence: Buffalo
Rank: staff sergeant
War zone: Iraq War
Years of service: 1987 – 1995; Army Reserves, 2001 to present
Most prominent honors: Iraq Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Army Achievement Medal and Good Conduct Medal
Specialty: petroleum supply specialist
Serving as a petroleum supply specialist with the 277th Quartermaster Petroleum Supply Company in Niagara Falls, the former college student who had once left Buffalo for the warmer weather of Florida realized it was all but inevitable that she would end up in one of the hottest and most dangerous spots on earth – Iraq.
It happened in the spring of 2005. Taylor-Dixon was activated and assigned to the 408th Personnel Service Battalion.
"I was in Tallil, south of Baghdad. It was very intense. Everything was kind of surrounding us. The attacks were on our perimeter, I'd say within 100 meters out. It was mortars, rocket propelled grenades. We were always under incoming alerts," she said.
When her job required her to go out on missions to process newly arriving units of soldiers, the enemy took advantage of the vulnerable convoys that carried her and other troops.
"It was very scary," she recalled of the attacks.
As a mother, she said she took heart in knowing that her children were in good hands. They were being care for by her own mother and grandmother.
And amid the intensity of war, Taylor-Dixon said she underwent a "spiritual transformation" that allowed her to overcome the thousands of miles that separated her from her children.
"I was able to tell my children in phone calls and emails that a part of me was in them and in my mom and when they hugged her, I was in the middle," Taylor-Dixon said. "It helped me to be at peace, knowing I had to complete my mission."
But it wasn't always easy.
While walking across rocky terrain wearing heavy, protective gear, she reinjured her left foot and ankle, which had been initially injured during her first activation in 2003 when she was sent to Fort Drum.
"I had to be medevaced to Abu Ghraib, the prison where they had a medical facility and it was a highly dangerous area," she said of the detention facility where American soldiers had brutalized Iraqi prisoners.
A week later, she was in a truck convoy on her way back to her company.
"I kind of broke down. I was in an unknown territory by myself, away from my unit and away from Buffalo and not knowing when I would get back or if I was going to make it back. The week seemed like forever," she said.
But she survived her 18-month deployment and returned home in November 2006.
"I was surprised at the airport not only by my family and friends, but the television stations were there," she said of her arrival at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. "I was on Cloud Nine. It was just overwhelming joy, seeing familiar faces and sights, coming from the desert and seeing buildings and trees."
So what about college and the GI Bill?
Taylor-Dixon is presently taking online courses at Grantham University in Kansas and hopes to graduate in 2019.
Earning the degree, she says, will represent the achievement of a long held dream of finally "getting my bachelor of science."
And she may even go further and start on a master's degree.
Taylor-Dixon says she also looks forward to retiring from the Reserves in 2019 and perhaps once again leaving behind the cold Buffalo winters for someplace warm.