As the Phoenix Rises: Helping Veterans Find a New Normal

Kayla WilliamsKayla Williams is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts as a woman veteran.


I took part in the initial invasion of Iraq while serving in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) nearly a decade ago. As a military-trained Arabic speaker, I went on combat foot patrols with infantry troops in Baghdad, and my gender only mattered if it made civilian women more comfortable interacting with us. But when we came home, I didn’t fit the stereotypical image civilians had of veterans as men with close-cropped hair. Well-wishers would buy “the guys” a free round of beers, assuming my women comrades and I were wives or girlfriends. If I did mention that I was just back from the war, some asked whether as a woman I had been “allowed to carry a gun” while others asked if I were in the infantry (then banned by regulation). Most Americans had no idea what women troops were accomplishing, though women had already been honored for their valor, taken prisoner of war, wounded, and killed on the battlefield.

My husband sustained a penetrating traumatic brain injury from an improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq, and I was struggling to help him recover cognitively and psychologically while simultaneously working to reintegrate myself into civilian society. For both of us, admitting our struggles and asking for help seemed an impossible violation of the military norms we had internalized – an embarrassing admission of weakness. Only once we saw that many of our peers were wrestling with similar challenges did we recognize the opportunity to share our own experiences as a way to push for systematic changes that would benefit other veterans.

Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army, my memoir about my time in the military, afforded me a modest amount of notoriety that became a platform from which to champion change. Through media appearances, blogs and op-eds, panel discussions, public speaking events, and congressional testimony, I have sought to raise awareness about what women troops, veterans, and wounded warriors experience. I also used those venues to identify gaps in services that were making it harder to successfully transition home, lobby for improvements, and push for the removal of outdated laws and regulations, such as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Combat Exclusion Policy. In addition, I’ve worked with various groups inside and outside the government: I previously served on the VA Advisory Committee on Women Veterans and am a member of the board of directors of Grace After Fire (a nonprofit dedicated to helping women veterans). Currently, I am a Truman National Security Project fellow, sit on the advisory committee of the VA’s SERV study, and serve on the Army Education Advisory Committee.

Much attention has been paid to post-traumatic stress disorder. Less recognized is the potential for post-traumatic growth, a positive change that can come out of a major life crisis or traumatic event. The phoenix is a powerful symbol of this possibility, rising from the ashes of its predecessor. With proper support, veterans and others who have experienced trauma can also find a new normal in which they continue to serve. Advocating on behalf of those coming home after me – my way to be a champion of change – has been a way to heal myself by helping others.

Kayla Williams is the author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army.

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