Since the US military transtioned from a draft to an all-volunteer force in 1973, most Americans can go their entire lives without thinking too much about their fellow citizens who sign up to serve in uniform. In this episode of Big World, Kayla M. Williams, SIS/MA ‘08, the assistant secretary of the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the US Department of Veterans Affairs, joins us to discuss veterans affairs and advocacy.
Williams describes the work she did as an Arabic linguist in the US Army from 2000 to 2005 (2:08), where she deployed to in Iraq (3:05), and how her time in the military impacted her decision to pursue veterans advocacy (5:14). She also explains what veterans advocacy work entails (7:26) and how her master’s degree from SIS impacted her career path (9:56).
What kinds of unique hurdles do women in the military and women veterans face (16:17)? What are Williams’ duties in her current, politically appointed role, and what does she hope to accomplish as assistant secretary (21:01)? Williams answers these questions and gives her advice to SIS students hoping to pursue veterans advocacy and become leaders in that endeavor (24:28).
During our “Take Five” segment, Williams tells us five military policies that she thinks could benefit the rest of American society (13:09).
0:07 Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters. Veterans Day in the US comes every November 11th, and for most Americans who've never served in the military or been close to someone who has, it passes mostly unnoticed—save for the joy many receive from getting a day off from work or school. Since the United States moved away from a draft and to an all-volunteer force in 1973, most Americans can go their entire lives without thinking too much about their fellow citizens who sign up to serve in uniform. And since the 9/11 attacks of 2001, those who have served have seen an operational tempo increased, beyond the breaking point for some of them, with multiple rotations in a Iraq or Afghanistan or both. So today we're talking about US veterans. I'm Kay Summers and I'm joined by Kayla M. Williams.
1:05 KS: Kayla is the assistant secretary heading up the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Kayla has an impressive list of accomplishments while working on behalf of veterans, and she knows what she's talking about. Before all of that, she was enlisted for five years as an Arabic linguist serving in the Military Intelligence Company of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. And she's the author of two memoirs, Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army and Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War. Finally, so very importantly to us, Kayla is an alumna of the School of International Service, where she received a Master's degree in International Affairs with a focus on the Middle East in 2008. Kayla Williams, thank you so much for joining Big World.
1:54 Kayla Williams: Thanks so much for having me. It's a real honor to be here.
1:56 KS: Kayla, as I said in your introduction, you served on active duty in the US Army from 2000 to 2005. You were an Arabic linguist, so what type of work did you do on a day-to-day basis?
2:08 KW: My training was in signals intelligence, so intercept and direction finding and then translation of enemy communications. However, during the war in Iraq, things were a lot more fluid. We did a great job during the Shock and Awe phase of the campaign, and there weren't a lot of enemy communications to find. What there was, was a tremendous need for translators and interpreters in that early stage of the conflict. So I ended up going out on combat foot patrols with the infantry in Baghdad in May of 2003, for example. Something that I didn't have training in doing, but that was the immediate need at that moment.
2:51 KS: And Kayla, the years of your service marked the transition to an extremely active and challenging time for the US military, especially in the months and years just after 9/11. You mentioned Iraq, where specifically were you deployed during those times?
3:05 KW: So I was part of the initial invasion of Iraq in early 2003. So sometimes it seems easier to answer where I wasn't. Sort of kidding, but we drove from Kuwait up to Baghdad and from Baghdad to Mosul and then from Mosul beyond to Tal Afar. I spent time up on Sinjar Mountain. So really got to see a lot of the country of Iraq during my time there and had the tremendous privilege of getting, as somebody who spoke Arabic, the opportunity to talk directly with a lot of local people. And as you say, it was a real period of transition. It can be hard for folks to remember after the way that things went long term, but in those early days, there were people who came up to me and wanted to tell me how grateful they were to have that Ba'ath Regime gone, who wanted to share their stories of oppression under Saddam Hussein.
4:04 KW: Certainly there's some selection biases of folks who are willing to come up and talk to me as a woman in the United States Army, but I did get that chance to hear directly from people who were so hopeful about the possibility of freedom and democracy. And then, was there during the beginning of what became the insurgency. My spouse was severely wounded in one of the first really coordinated attacks outside of Mosul. So that shift, from tremendous hope to real rage that we weren't able to deliver on some of the early promise, and hardening into a very different looking conflict, it really started to happen while I was there.
4:54 KS: Kayla, as I mentioned, you've written two books about your experiences as a soldier and a veteran. So examining your own experiences is something that you have spent some time doing, and you mentioned the injury to your spouse, how did your time in the military impact your decision to pursue veteran advocacy?
5:14 KW: It was the key driver of my shift. So when I first came home from Iraq, as a woman veteran, I felt really invisible and folks would thank the guys for what they did down range. And I felt that what women were experiencing was totally unknown to the general American public. At one point, then president Bush said there are no women in combat and that just cut really deeply. Wanting to give voice to our experiences, at least my perspective of them, was an important part of me choosing to write my first book. And that publication gave me a voice that I felt privileged to take advantage of as I saw the gaps and challenges in caring for wounded warriors, for women in the military, and so many other aspects of that veteran experience overall.
6:26 KW: And I decided that one of the ways I could find meaning in the problems I had personally encountered was to try to advocate for those coming behind me to have better experiences than I did. To speak up about women in combat, to speak up about the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy banning LGB and service members from serving openly at the time, to speak up about the challenges that wounded warriors faced in trying to get high quality care and services. And that was both meaningful, in terms of being a way to address some of my own trauma, frankly, and also just felt like the right thing to do overall.
7:17 KS: Right, and Kayla, in the day to day, what does veteran advocacy entail? How do you pursue that work on behalf of veterans?
7:26 KW: It can really differ for folks, depending on how they want to go about it. Some people choose to do it by working for veteran service organizations. For me, as I mentioned, I kind of stumbled into it. I had a bit of a voice because I was a published author and I moved towards writing op-eds. I went on TV to do interviews about topics that mattered. I did radio interviews, print media interviews, podcasts. I was able to testify on the Hill a couple of times. And as I was spending a lot of my copious free time, because as women, we never—.
8:07 KS: We have so much of it, yeah.
8:08 KW: We never let a moment go unscheduled. It occurred to me that I was really devoting so much of my personal time and my energy and my passion into that work and that was not how I was spending my time professionally. And realized that I wanted to bring those things into better alignment. At the time, I was working at the RAND Corporation and was able to gradually shift my research portfolio to better align with my passion, to do more work professionally on these topics. And one of the most important aspects of that, for me, was coming to really, deeply appreciate the importance of advocating
8:50 KW: not just for anything but for evidence-based policies. When people are desperate, there's a tendency to latch onto anything that that might work. But if we're going to be pushing for taxpayer dollars to be invested in things, I think it is only responsible to ensure that those policy initiatives or services or programs are actually shown to be effective. And that's a way that the professional experience I had at RAND really informed and influenced and shaped the advocacy work that I was doing. And also, ultimately my long term career path.
9:38 KS: Kayla, after you transitioned out of the Army, as we mentioned at the beginning, you pursued a Master's degree from SIS in Comparative and Regional Studies and you focused on the Middle East. Why did you choose to get a Master's degree and how did that decision affect your career path or help it along?
9:56 KW: I wanted a Master's before I joined the Army. It's actually one of the key reasons that I joined the military, is the GI Bill was a big driver, and while I was in Iraq I became convinced that I wanted to work on US foreign policy while not carrying a gun. I thought that there were better ways to do some of the things that we were doing. And so chose to apply to SIS and, I'll just be really candid, partly to give possibly some hope to folks who may be wondering about what seemed to be uneven or unclear career paths. Halfway through my Master's program, I had to have a hard conversation with my spouse because it was becoming clear to me that he had some reluctance. My goal was to work for the State Department, and I sat him down and said, "Do you actually want to live abroad?" And he said, "No. Especially since you speak Arabic and French, they would station you almost certainly in an Arabic speaking country. And after getting blown up in Iraq, I don't want to live in an Arabic speaking country."
11:11 KW: And that was a real moment where I had to sit down and say, first, "Could you not have mentioned that before I did my major? And second, now what?" What do I do with the need to balance my professional goals and my commitment to my family? So Master's programs only being two years long. It's like, I'm not going to start over, so I'm going to carry on and finish this degree and then see where things go. So ended up choosing to work at a think tank instead of trying to join the State Department and having other shifts along the way in where I was focusing my work.
11:58 KW: Later, when I was working for VA, I sometimes joked that my time in the School of International Service and learning about how governments worked together at the international level helped me prepare for interagency work. Only half joking there, but some of the same concepts that inform how folks work in foreign policy, really can be transferred to how we consider working with partners in other agencies or in the corporate sector and so forth. So I definitely still found my degree to be incredibly useful, even though, after a few years at RAND, I really shifted away from international work and to a much more domestic focus.
12:54 KS: Kayla Williams, it's time to Take Five. We've talked a little about how the average American may not know much about how the military really works. So what are five military policies that you think could benefit the rest of society?
13:09 KW: Thanks so much for asking, I think that's a really fascinating question. So five military policies that I think could be really beneficial in broader society. Number one, hands down, is equal pay. Women make the same money as men do in the military and that would definitely be beneficial for the rest of society. Another is subsidized childcare that is available on a sliding scale based on your income. Next on my list, free healthcare for all active duty service members as well as their families. Next is basically a living wage. So on top of your actual salary, you get a basic allowance for housing, which varies based on the cost of living where you are stationed. You also get a basic allowance for sustenance, so for food, and when you combine those different parts of your overall compensation, with that free healthcare and that subsidized childcare, really folks in the military do get a living wage.
14:19 KW: The last one isn't a policy, exactly, but a philosophy that has informed how I've tried to approach leadership, that I would love to see carried out more broadly. Which can be summed up as, "leaders eat last." When you're in the field or even in the chow hall, it is habitual for leaders to let their subordinates go first when going through the line to get food. On major holidays, leaders will come in and volunteer to serve food in the chow hall so that folks can get a break or a day off. And that core, underlying ethos of servant leadership I think is really valuable and worth thinking about as all of us progress in our careers.
15:14 KS: I think all you're going to get from me on those is an amen, but thank you so much. Kayla, you mentioned feeling somewhat invisible as a woman veteran. And we know that the role of women in the armed forces has been changing. I mean, it's been changing for decades. It's been changing almost in real time. And as we saw with the horrible terrorist bombing of the Kabul Airport in August and the 13 service members who were killed, two of them were women. So I want to talk a little bit about your work on behalf of women veterans, and specifically at one point in your career, you were the director of the Center for Women Veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs. So if you could, talk a little bit more about the unique hurdles that women veterans face in particular. And you can also talk about the hurdles they face while in the active duty services, would love to know a little bit about that.
16:17 KW: While women are on active duty, in addition to all of the challenges that men face, they are also disproportionately likely to experience sexual harassment and assault. While I was serving, there were still explicit bars on our ability to serve in certain jobs or units. Those restrictions have now fallen, thanks to hard work by a tremendous number of fantastic advocates. Women also still face deeply entrenched sexism. Women of color, and LGBTQ+ women may face other additional intersectional issues that can further complicate their efforts to do their jobs and thrive and succeed based on merit. And when we transition out of the military and into veteran status, those challenges come with us, so we are more likely to have experienced trauma. And as we enter the civilian workforce, we experience the same barriers that non-veteran women do, that I'm sure you're very acutely aware of, where women earn less than men, for example—are disproportionately likely to be the primary caregivers of small children and have to deal with other caregiving challenges at higher rates.
17:49 KW: While we also may be carrying some of the same burdens that men who are veterans face, about not feeling as if our experiences in the military are adequately understood, having a hard time translating those experiences and skills into civilian context, and so forth. So those multiple burdens can be real challenges for us. When it comes to the VA side of things, the Department of Veterans Affairs systems were really designed at a time when women's participation in the military was capped by law. And so, many facilities were built without women in mind. And the challenge of changing systems to be more inclusive is not something that happens overnight. And it can be quite challenging to identify and rectify all of the small barriers that do exist. So while I was running the Center for Women Veterans, my ultimate goal was maybe a little overly ambitious, but my ultimate goal was to work myself out of a job.
19:06 KW: My thinking was, I could declare mission accomplished when we didn't need an office that was focused on women veterans because consideration of their needs was built into every program, every service, every assessment, from the beginning, by default. But that's not where we were. And we saw that by disparities in some outcomes and across different service lines. One of the things that I was most proud of accomplishing while I was there was really raising the profile of the office, both within the department and externally. Launching, for example, the first digital outreach that the office had ever conducted and having really regular email outreach to subscribers that showed just exponential growth after we launched it.
20:04 KW: Getting Facebook and Twitter accounts for the center and finding innovative ways to raise awareness among veterans, VA employees, and other community partners that women are veterans—by getting exhibits, for example, of women veteran athletes, women veteran artists, in facilities around the country. So it's very challenging to try to shift direction for an organization with nearly 400,000 employees that serves 19 million beneficiaries, 19 million veterans, as well as their families and caregivers and survivors. And so, I definitely did not declare mission accomplished by the time I left that job, but I think that we did make some real progress and I'm excited to see that continue.
21:01 KS: Kayla, you were recently appointed assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs in the Biden administration. And I really want to find out, what are your duties in this role? And more importantly, what are your goals?
21:17 KW: I oversee all public affairs and intergovernmental affairs for the department. So I'm responsible for our engagement with the media, our social media communications directly with veterans and other stakeholders, our relationships with state and local partners, even with international requests that we get for visits. And oversee a team of right around 80 folks, so it's a big job managing communications for the full agency at the enterprise level. My goal, since coming on board, has been to ensure that our posture is transparent, proactive, and accountable to the maximum extent possible. We are a government agency, we are funded by taxpayers, and we owe a great duty to the public to be as forward leaning as we can in sharing what we, as an agency, are doing to support veterans, their caregivers, families, and survivors. And it is challenging in some ways to convince people that that is the right path when, in an agency this large, there are going to be bad news stories.
22:43 KW: And I think it's an automatic reaction to want to crouch down when things are going badly. But I firmly believe that the old phrase, bad news doesn't get better with age, and that we need to be more forward leaning. I also believe very, very deeply that VA has a tremendous number of good news stories to tell and should be leaning forward hard on those. So I, for example, like so many other people, I could be eligible for healthcare in various ways. So as an employee and because my spouse is medically retired, I could be eligible for Tricare through the military. And I'm also independently eligible for VA Healthcare because of my own service.
23:31 KW: And I choose to get healthcare from VA because it is high quality, integrated, and comprehensive. There are better rates of breast cancer and cervical cancer screening for women within the VA than in any other system of care. And helping folks understand that whatever bad news stories you may have seen in the past, that the data is very clear that VA provides higher quality care. That news needs to be out there because it could be, in fact, leading to worse outcomes for people to not know about the VA care and benefits that they may be eligible for.
24:13 KS: Kayla, what advice do you have for SIS students? Because we know that's a large chunk of who listens to our podcast. What advice do you have for them if they want to pursue veteran advocacy and become a leader in this space, like you have done.
24:28 KW: I think that, overall, it's incredibly important to be credible. Remember that, especially in a small space, which ours is, really. Your reputation will follow you and your integrity, therefore, matters. It matters that you know what you're talking about and that you follow through on your promises. But these aren't revelatory nuggets that are different than they would be necessarily in some other space. I'll share something, maybe you can laugh at me a bit. When I was earlier in my career, folks would talk so much about the importance of networking, and I didn't really get that on an emotional level until I was doing a small niche project at RAND where I played a very, very small role and we were looking at terrorist networks and financing. And it clicked in with me that networks matter, not just terrorist networks, but my networks. It took that. Maybe I'm not as good at thinking about things for my own benefit as I am maybe considering them important for other people.
25:57 KW: And when it finally clicked in with me, oh, that's how this makes sense and works. And being able to turn that and think about it for myself, to consider that the network of people I know, they are advancing their careers just as I am. And if I want to be able to support employees of mine, who I think are excellent, but need to move to another role to advance their careers, that it's important that I have nurtured my own network. That I am able to be seen as a trusted resource for others. I have been, I will admit, not necessarily great at trying to use my network for my own advancement, but I find it so deeply rewarding to be able to pay it forward and nurture the careers of those coming after me. That is absolutely my favorite thing about having attained this stage of my own career. And so, thinking about networking, which can feel kind of weird or squicky to some people, as a way to benefit not just yourself but those you are mentoring, I think can also be really important.
27:17 KS: Kayla M. Williams, thank you so much for joining Big World to discuss your time at SIS and your career as an advocate for veterans, and not just on Veterans Day but every day. Thank you for your service in our armed forces. It's been a real privilege to speak with you.
27:32 KW: Thanks so much for having me.
27:33 KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you might listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or a review, it'll be like an unobstructed view of the Grand Canyon. Our theme music is, It Was Just Cold, by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.
SIS/MA ‘08, Assistant Secretary of the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the US Department of Veterans Affairs