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returning home

From the Air Force to Johnson & Wales

Crystal Hedquist working at Johnson & Wales’ campus restaurant, Cintas, part of her advanced dining class.

Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe

Crystal Hedquist working at Johnson & Wales’ campus restaurant, Cintas, part of her advanced dining class.

RETURNING HOME This is the third in a series that will run in the next few months on veterans training in the food industry.

Last year held many changes for Crystal Hedquist. After 12 years of military life, she returned to her home state of Rhode Island to study culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Providence.

The Burrillville, R.I., native spent four years in the US Air Force, then eight years as a civilian contractor in Afghanistan. She’s now pursuing a two-year associate’s degree. “I am not the type of person who wants to sit in an office and go to meetings,” says Hedquist, 32. “I was looking for a more physical job.”

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She is funding her studies with the government’s Post 9-11 GI Bill and a school-voluntary provision under the bill called The Yellow Ribbon program. Of Hedquist’s $28,000 tuition, the GI Bill pays $20,000, Yellow Ribbon kicks in $7,000 (the cost split between Johnson & Wales and the Department of Veterans Affairs), and she has a $1,000 scholarship from J&W.

Hedquist also receives about $1,500 a month for housing from the GI Bill. She recently bought a duplex in Cranston, R.I., so the stipend helps her with the mortgage, utilities, and a car payment, and she doesn’t have to get a part-time job. She spent the year getting back into study mode.

She joined the Air Force after a brief time at the Community College of Rhode Island. She was unmotivated and followed an older brother, Jason, who was serving in the US Army. “I decided I wanted to see more and do more,” says Hedquist, who selected the air service in 2002. Jason and Crystal are two of five siblings, and the only two getting college degrees.

On active duty, Crystal Hedquist studied airfield management and flight operations to become a flight data specialist. On her first assignment in Guam, she assisted airfield management, monitoring $33 million in construction projects. The Air Force promoted her to airfield management operations supervisor in 2004, where she served in Korea and Arizona.

Hedquist during her military career.

Hedquist during her military career.

Feeling restricted by an Air Force career, Hedquist decided not to reenlist, but took her airfield management skills to Bagram, Afghanistan, as a contractor. “It sounded like a good experience because in the Air Force I didn’t have a chance to go over to Iraq or Afghanistan,” says Hedquist. “I was curious and it was a good-paying job with benefits.”

A huge perk of the contract position was extensive time off. For every 90 days she worked, Hedquist received 30 days leave, allowing her to travel to Germany, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Qatar, and almost every continent. She also tasted the specialties of many cuisines, including emu in Australia.

But while the contractor career gave her the time and money to see the world, life at Bagram Airfield was isolating. “Every day felt exactly like the same day,” says Hedquist. “I think everyone’s goal eventually is to leave.”

Now, because she is so widely traveled, Hedquist finds herself familiar with many dishes taught in her culinary classes. For her upcoming internship, she is considering applying to restaurants in South America, whose cuisine she describes as spicy but with well-blended flavors. She’s hoping an internship will give her direction about her next move. One possibility is a bachelor of science in culinary nutrition at J&W, since she follows a healthy lifestyle herself, working out and eating well.

While the veteran enjoys time with friends and family as she settles in, her next excursion is never far away. She took the summer off and is going to Ecuador, where she hopes to work on her Spanish.

“I am always going on trips, traveling somewhere, seeing something new, learning something different,” she says. A fitting aptitude for the global culinary field.

Alexa McMahon can be reached at alexa.mcmahon@globe.com.
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