Interview with Toni Rico, Veteran NCO, U.S. Army
Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN)
Director of Communications and Policy
Interview date: April 23, 2018
Tell us about your military background.
I shipped off to basic training in October of 2001 and went to Fort Leonard Wood. I then went to AIT (Advanced Individual Training) at Fort Meade and was a 46Q Public Affairs Specialist. I was deployed twice. The first time was out of Fort Drum to Baghdad, where I escorted civilian journalists. My second deployment was out of Fort Lewis for almost for a year with the 3-2 Stryker Brigade and the 4-2 Stryker Brigade. We went out on missions and major combat operations. It was the 5th MPAD (Mobile Public Affairs Detachment), and we were responsible for covering most of Northern Iraq. Each team in MPAD had an area of responsibility and we worked in teams of two people (one journalist and one videographer). The most satisfying part was that we had the chance to be really independent and attached to different units, and every time was an opportunity to mesh and integrate with new people. The independence we had and the fact that we got to see so much of the soldiers and their missions and get to know them, it was a really insightful experience. It gave me a broad overview of what all the units were doing in different capacities and the opportunity to integrate with new people.
What was the most rewarding aspect of your service?
I loved my entire Army career. I loved what I did and I loved getting to know all the soldiers and the jobs that they did. I loved being a journalist in the Army. War is war, though. There are a lot of people I’d go on missions with and hear later on that they were killed. The most rewarding thing is that hopefully I was able to tell their story, and that people would get to know the people out there fighting for us, so people could get to know our soldiers as people.
What inspired you to become involved working with women Veterans?
I got out of the military in 2008 but I didn’t start working with women veterans until 2015. After the military I got my bachelor’s degree and worked with the Army and Navy Times for almost a year, and went back to get my master’s. I didn’t fully identify as a woman Veteran. For me, I was a mom and a college student. I went to a Veteran’s group once in college but it didn’t seem relatable to me. Most of the people there weren’t in my situation. For a while I didn’t claim the Veteran identity. When I went back to get my master’s degree at Georgetown, I presented a TED-style talk at a program called “Georgetown Speaks” on women in the military, and everyone was pretty receptive. So many people don’t know the realities of women in the military, or they have the wrong perception, and either see them as victims or in noncombat roles. But there have been so many women for so long who have been actively fighting for the security and defense of our country. So many amazing women have done so much incredible work, and our country doesn’t know enough about it. That’s what drove me to start talking about it and it’s what sparked my interest to tell women Veterans’ stories and to advocate for them.
I saw that there weren’t many women Veterans around [my campus], and felt a responsibility to talk about it, to tell people of all the achievements of women in the military. Then I got involved in the Georgetown Student Veteran Association. I was the Director of Communication and met some awesome people. It was great to be surrounded by women Veterans and to not feel so isolated. It felt safe because in general, many women Veterans don’t want to talk about their experiences. A lot of people question it – you talk about it with people in the civilian world and they don’t understand. So to be around other women Veterans who don’t question the nature of your service, it opens you up to talk about it and it feels validating to be around them. They’ve all been through the same thing.
SWAN did a survey during our first year and something the women Veterans mentioned is that they wanted a sense of community. We have about 2 million women who have served and are Veterans. But you don’t run across many women Veterans; there’s a feeling of isolation and of not having people who understand your service. It’s about trying to find the tribe of women Veterans who they can feel comfortable around. We’re all around the country and kind of isolated so it’s important to find organizations like SWAN. Women veterans can be such a powerful and influential force with the mission of making services better for other women Veterans.
Tell us about the mission of your organization.
One of SWAN’s missions is to raise awareness of service for military women. Representation matters. If you don’t see role models out there, you never think that’s a job you can do. We also raise awareness about achievements of women in the military. Women in the military can go so much further in their careers today. There’s a big population of young women who are so capable. The military needs their talent because the recruiting pool shrinks all the time. The military cannot accomplish its mission without women. They definitely need to open up all the jobs and remove structural barriers.
SWAN’s mission is to connect service women and build a community for them and to advocate for their needs. I would not want to be doing anything else. After my own experience in the military, my mission is to advocate for women who can serve without structural barriers, and also to make sure that their service is recognized and honored. SWAN’s mission is also to make sure that service women receive what they earned through their service. One of SWAN’s key issues is combat integration, and we work to ensure that women are allowed to serve in every MOS (infantry and armor). Another key issue is reducing bias, harassment, and assault in the military. We also have been advocating for parity in the reproductive healthcare for women Veterans and service women, so we’re trying to expand the access to reproductive care.
What advice do you have for women who are transitioning out of the military?
I would definitely say ensure that you know everything that you can about Veteran’s benefits because you are the Veteran. When you’re in the military, you don’t really think about how one day when you transition out, you’re going to be a Veteran, and that one day, VA resources will apply to you. Definitely find out and get knowledge about the resources and benefits that you have earned for your service. Another thing is to make sure that you network. A lot of the time women in the military are used to being tough and strong and doing things on their own, and I think it’s really important to find a community of other women Veterans to reach out to. Find your tribe and connect with them. And professional networking is really helpful. Also, don’t lose your community. While you’re in the military you have community with the military base, but once you get out, you go out into the civilian world and you won’t have everyone from your service. Keep in touch and make an effort to reach out to people.
Anything else that you would like people to know about you or your organization?
We would definitely love for service women and women Veterans to connect to SWAN. You can go to our web page, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and sign up for our newsletter. You can also reach out to us if you’re having problems with anything, and we can help to get you connected to resources.