WHEN RICH HILL, MISSOURI, NATIVE ASHLEY ARWOOD first enrolled at Pitt State in 2005, she had dreams of becoming a P.E. teacher. And for two years, that’s what she was on track to do. But Arwood felt “a calling” that just wouldn’t go away. Choosing to follow that call would change Arwood’s life in ways she could have never expected.
School was going fine, Arwood said. She liked her teachers and enjoyed life at Pitt State, but something kept nagging at her.
“I just felt while I was in school I wasn’t doing anything (significant),” Arwood said. “I felt like I was stagnant.”
Military service was a tradition in her family and when Arwood’s younger brother decided to join the Marines in 2007, Ashley knew that’s what she wanted, too.
At the end of her sophomore year, Arwood left PSU and entered the Marines where she trained to become a military police officer and a K9 handler. Initially, she was paired with an experienced explosive detection dog, Alma.
In 2009, Arwood got a second working dog, Hugo, who was just a year old, and the two bonded almost instantly.
“Hugo’s a beautiful dog – all black, probably about 75 pounds or so and muscle-bound. He’s a big baby until it’s business time,” Arwood said.
Arwood and Hugo trained day and night until November 2009, when Arwood became the first female Marine K9 handler to deploy to Afghanistan, where they led patrols, successfully seeking out improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Hugo’s sharp skills couldn’t protect the Marines from the rocket-propelled grenade launched in 2010. Although Hugo was not injured in the explosion, Arwood soon began to feel the effects of the blast. She returned to the U.S. where she had a series of surgeries on her leg, followed by months and months of rehab.
“That was probably the hardest and most painful,” Arwood said. “We’re doing better, now. I’m finally getting back to where I can run for short bouts…That’s a vast improvement. I was 24 years old and walking with a cane.”
The experience caused Arwood to rethink her career. She returned to PSU and earned her bachelor’s degree in physical education in May. This fall Arwood began work on a master’s degree in special education and she hopes to become an adaptive P.E. teacher.
“I have a whole new appreciation for children who have to learn things in a different way,” Arwood said. “My experiences, seeing wounded veterans, having my own wounds and having learned how to deal with it and make the best of it – it definitely changed my perspective.”
Today the future looks bright for Arwood. She and her husband, Tyler, also a former Marine, have a daughter, Alli, who is three.
Arwood said a day doesn’t go by that she doesn’t think of Hugo, who is still serving in Afghanistan. She hopes to adopt him when he finishes his military service.
“There is nothing in this world that I would want more than to bring him home and spoil him rotten in his retirement,” Arwood said. “The moment he’s ready to come home I’ll be on a plane to get him.”