Interview with Kayla Williams
Organization: VA Center for Women Veterans (CWV)
Date: January 10, 2018
Interviewed by: Jen Wachen
Tell us about your military background.
I enlisted in the Army in the year 2000. My reasons for joining were multifold. Not one thing drove me to military service, but a lot of things came together to bring be there. I came from a family of modest means and I recognized that the military could provide opportunities I wouldn’t otherwise have. I had already gotten a college degree in English Literature at Bowling Green University in OH, but I had a feeling that I was digging myself in a rut, doing what was expected by everyone else and not what I wanted to do. I had gone to college, had a job, had a steady boyfriend–checking all the boxes, but I didn’t have any passion. I was afraid that if I didn’t do something radically different, life would just pass me by as a passive participant. When I lost my job, I needed to figure out what to do next. I wanted a challenge, I wanted to serve and give back, and to get out of my rut and do something different. I chose to join the military so that I could be paid to learn a foreign language while serving my country. It was a challenge, and I didn’t know if I could succeed. I enlisted in order to get the job I wanted, which was as a linguist. I was training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA studying Arabic when 9/11 happened, so it was clear right away I would have a very important job. I was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, KY. I was part of the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. Because I was a woman and women were technically barred from combat arms jobs and units at that time, I wasn’t equipped to be in combat, but I was going out on combat patrols with the infantry. We were serving right alongside the male soldiers but weren’t being recognized for the type of work we were doing. From that experience, I was motivated to make sure that female Service Members and Veterans get the recognition they deserve.
What was the most rewarding aspect of your service?
The most rewarding part of my service was translating between the infantry and the local Iraqis. I was making a positive difference by helping the unit accomplish the mission every day. Having a sense of purpose and meaning was important to me. Another important aspect of my service is that I met a fellow Service Member while deployed who eventually became my husband. He sustained a penetrating traumatic brain injury from shrapnel from a roadside bomb, and we didn’t know if he would survive. They eventually cautiously upgraded his prognosis, but didn’t know how he would turn out. He was released from the hospital at the same time I returned from the Middle East. We started dating while stationed at Fort Campbell together. I didn’t know anything about TBI and PTSD at that time, and it took a while to realize the extent and severity of his injuries. I chose to leave the military to help him with his recovery in 2005 after my 5-year enlistment was up. When he was sent to Walter Reed for intensive care, I moved there and learned how to be a caregiver while at the same time working on my own reintegration to civilian life. It was a very challenging time, because there were not many resources for caregivers at that time. I recognized that there were gaps in services, and that experience led me toward my current career.
What inspired you to become involved working with women Veterans?
My own reintegration experiences really give me the passion to do my job every day, because I want to change that experience for other women Veterans. As a woman, the process was complicated because I wasn’t recognized as a Veteran at Veteran events. That feeling of having my own service not acknowledged made it harder for me to be recognized as a Veteran. Over time I gradually became really passionate about advocating for women in the military, Veterans, wounded warriors, and military families. I have been involved with advocacy to improve services for wounded warriors, to make improvements within DoD for women, to remove the combat exclusion for women, and to address military sexual trauma. I wanted to make the policies match the reality I experienced and let people serve based on their ability and not be stopped by gender-related barriers. I used the GI bill to go to grad school and earned a Master’s degree at American University, then spent 8 ½ years at RAND working on issues related to Service Member and Veteran topics. I used my own experiences serving in the military and navigating the challenges of reintegration as a caregiver spouse and my own experience as a Veteran to now serve Department of VA. I derive a sense of meaning and purpose from assisting fellow Veterans.
Tell us about the mission of your organization.
The mission of the VA Center for Women Veterans (CWV) is to:
- Monitor and coordinate VA’s administration of health care and benefits services, and programs for women Veterans.
- Serve as an advocate for a cultural transformation (both within VA and in the general public) in recognizing the service and contributions of women Veterans and women in the military.
- Raise awareness of the responsibility to treat women Veterans with dignity and respect.
The CWV was created by law in the mid-1990s, and has congressionally mandated functions. We provide education within the VA and provide monitoring and oversight to make sure VA is treating male and female Veterans equitably. We also have a public role to educate women Veterans about their Veteran status and what services might be available to them, and to connect them with Veteran services. Additionally we work with federal, state, and local level organizations to educate them about recognizing women Veterans as part of the population they serve. We also educate them about the unique and disproportionate challenges that women face (such as higher incidence of MST and often having greater caregiving responsibilities). These organizations need to be aware of the unique needs of women. Many women Veterans who didn’t go to a combat zone may have been told they are not “real Veterans,” and may have internalized that and not realize they have earned the right to Veteran services. We work to help them understand that we honor and value their service. There are lots of services in VA (such as healthcare, home loan, and education services) that can help them live the life they want to live and enhance their quality of life.
What advice do you have for women who are transitioning out of the military?
I think it’s really important for women Veterans to know what services are available to support them. Sometimes what you need doesn’t become apparent for a while. It wasn’t until later after my discharge, after some plans I had didn’t work out as I imagined, that I needed to know what resources were available. It’s important to know where you can go for support if you encounter challenges. The other piece is to maintain connections with other women Veterans and military peers. Once I became involved with advocacy, it felt great to become involved with other women Veterans. Once I developed a strong support network of women Veteran peers, it made a huge difference in my life. We could get together and spend time bonding and supporting one another. We were able to help with careers and networking, and to support each other through marriages, divorces, pregnancies and childbirth, and so many other aspects of our lives. Having strong bonds from shared military experience is really important, and that connection is vital.
Anything else that you would like people to know about you or your organization?
I hope they will go to our website (https://www.va.gov/womenvet/) to sign up for email updates on a number of different topics, and check out resources we have available that are of interest to military women and women Veterans. They should know that we’re here if they encounter challenges. We want to support women Veterans and raise awareness of resources available to serve them.