U.S. Army 1989-1992
WoVeN Peer Leader & Trainer in San Diego
U.S. Air Force 1997-2009
WoVeN Peer Leader in San Diego
Tell us about your military background.
Cynthia: I was in the Air Force for 12 years. I joined because I wanted to do something that was bigger than myself. I knew I needed to leave my small town and wanted to have the opportunity to grow and develop further. I joined the Air Force in 1997 and was discharged honorably in 2009. I was stationed at Dover AFB, Beale Air Force Base and had two deployments. I worked in many different positions. I started as Air Crew life support. I then went into information management and worked alongside my Commander as his support staff. I enjoyed that, and when an opportunity came to go into a special duty assignment, I went into recruiting. When I separated I went on to pursue two Master’s degrees, one in Human Resource Management and another in Organizational Leadership. Now I work helping transitioning veterans find meaningful employment with Easter Seals Bob Hope Veterans Support Program.
Billiekai: I joined the Army at age 17 in 1989 because I wanted to go to college and the Army was offering the Army College Fund. I was deployed to Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990. When I got out in 1992 I went to community college and got my Associates degree and was the commencement speaker at graduation, which I was proud of. I went on to receive my Bachelor’s degree at UC Berkley and my Masters from University of San Diego in Executive Leadership in 2015.
What was the most rewarding aspect of your service?
Cynthia: I would have to say the most rewarding aspect was the opportunity to serve a cause greater than my own and to collaborate with other service members. Through my role as a recruiter, I also was able to help others who believed in a greater purpose than their own to enlist in the military to serve and find their purpose. Being able to connect with young people and help them find that greater purpose of serving was very rewarding.
Billiekai: One of the most fundamental things I carried away was the knowledge of myself and my capacities, and how tenacity and determination can be the keys to success. I walked away with a greater sense of myself than I would have from any other experience. I learned that tenacity is one of the greatest tools that anyone can have. Too often people give up too easily, but persistence can be the key to succeeding.
What inspired you to become involved working with women Veterans?
Cynthia: It’s always been a passion of mine to work with Veterans. My full-time job at Easter Seals is to help transitioning Veterans find meaningful employment and connect them to a variety of resources. My favorite thing about working with women Veterans is the bond that is created when you get women Veterans together. Working with women Veterans is something I hold close to my heart. I love having the opportunity to create a support network for our women Veterans throughout our community. We create a safe space to encourage and empower women Veterans in San Diego. It’s priceless!
Billiekai: I became frustrated with the dialogue of women Veterans “being broken” and the perpetual stereotype that every woman in the military is fragile and needs help. I wanted to change the dialogue of women Veterans to one that is strong, capable, and resilient, which is different than the world is seeing them. I want to bring awareness to the value of women Veterans in the community. Women Veterans are more likely to be working, have food security, have a bachelor’s degree, and are more likely to be civically engaged in the community through activities like volunteering and voting. There are lots of benefits to having women Veterans in our neighborhoods and our workplaces, and I wanted to shift the dialogue to success instead of failure.
Tell us about the mission of your organization.
The San Diego Women Veterans Network has two primary missions. The first is to build a community of women Veterans and to help them bond and connect with one another. We work to meet the need to bond through a wide range of events, from professional to casual, both family and adult events. The other mission is to provide the opportunity to connect women Veterans with service providers. Women Veterans often won’t ask for help directly, but then once they feel comfortable within our community they feel safe asking for assistance. Since we work closely with our service providers, involving them in building the community, we are in the perfect position to give warm referrals to the women Veterans when they ask.
What advice do you have for women who are transitioning out of the military?
Cynthia: It’s important to be connected to some kind of support network and to be able to openly reach out to find support. In order to be able to go out to find the resources you need, you need to connect with trusted partners to help. When women are transitioning out of the military, sometimes they struggle to figure out who they are when they leave. Their role has suddenly changed and now they have to find a new role and purpose outside the military. Learning to articulate your story in a way that employers understand, without acronyms and military specific jargon, is important. Be bold, take chances, and put yourself out there when it comes to connecting with others and networking. I would have never found the opportunities I had if I not gotten out of my box. Building professional relationships is also important when looking for your next opportunity. Also, ask for assistance when you need it. There are organizations like the Bob Hope Veterans Support Program whose primary goal is to assist transitioning service members and prepare them for their next chapter.
Billiekai: We spend years of our life in the company of others all the time in the military. When you get out, suddenly you are singular. The need for bonding is the number one thing that is missed. We also know there are other needs that come along during the transition, such as help with speaking civilian, learning how to dress, or finding housing or childcare. I encourage women who are leaving the military to reach out. Start early and don’t wait to get out to start looking for a job. Also, try to save some money to start preparing before you leave the military.
Anything else that you would like people to know about you or your organization?
We are primarily here to serve San Diego women Veterans but we are happy to help women Veterans across the country find resources they need and help connect them to appropriate services. We heard about WoVeN at the Service Women Action Network (SWAN) summit last winter. When the Peer Advocates shared about their experience, we knew right away we wanted to get WoVeN up and running in San Diego with our team. It’s a practical extension of the work we are already doing in our community, and by adding the program we were able to reach more women Veterans and provide them with more skills for success.