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Interview: Kayla M. Williams, Director of the Center for Women Veterans

Kayla M. Williams is the director of the Center for Women Veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), where she is responsible for monitoring and coordinating VA’s administration of health care, benefits, and programs for women veterans; serving as an advocate for increased recognition of the service and contributions of women veterans and service members; and raising awareness of the responsibility to treat women veterans with dignity and respect.

Prior to coming to VA, Williams spent eight years at the RAND Corporation and five years enlisted in the U.S. Army, including a yearlong Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment with the 101st Airborne Division. Williams earned a B.A. in English literature from Bowling Green State University and an M.A. in international relations from American University. She is a former member of VA Advisory Committee on Women Veterans, a 2013 White House Woman Veteran Champion of Change, and a 2015 Lincoln Award recipient. Williams is the author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army and Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War, both published by W.W. Norton.

 

Veterans Affairs & Military Medicine Outlook: Why is a Center for Women Veterans (CWV) important to veterans and to the nation?

Kayla M. Williams: The Center for Women Veterans and our sister office, the Center for Minority Veterans, are important in ensuring the unique or disproportionate needs of minority groups are met. All those who have served our nation honorably deserve the same access to care and benefits.

 

What functions does the Center for Women Veterans perform?

[The] CWV was established by law in 1994; our congressionally mandated functions include advising the secretary [of the Department of Veterans Affairs] and other senior leaders on policies, programs, and legislation affecting women veterans; conducting outreach to and promoting the use of VA benefits by women veterans; disseminating information and serving as a resource center; publicizing the results of significant medical research; and supporting the independent VA Advisory Committee on Women Veterans. Our mission 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; and raise awareness of the responsibility to treat women veterans with dignity and respect.

 

As a combat veteran, what elements of your service experience did you find to be in contrast to the public’s perception of women in combat?

I took part in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 as part of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). When we came home in 2004, it became clear that the public had no understanding of how women were serving overseas: Some people asked if I was even allowed to carry a gun as a woman, while others asked if I were in the infantry [which, at that time, was still barred]. Today, public awareness has increased significantly – most Americans today are likely aware that since 9/11, women troops have been prisoners of war and have been injured and killed in combat.

U.S. Army Spc. Amanda Vasquez, with Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, renders a salute during the presentation of the colors at “Fight Night for Heroes,” the first-ever mixed martial arts fights held at Forward Operating Base Marez, Iraq, in 2009. Today, women are one of the fastest-growing subgroups among the veteran population, according to the CWV. Photo by Senior Airman Kamaile Chan

U.S. Army Spc. Amanda Vasquez, with Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, renders a salute during the presentation of the colors at “Fight Night for Heroes,” the first-ever mixed martial arts fights held at Forward Operating Base Marez, Iraq, in 2009. Today, women are one of the fastest-growing subgroups among the veteran population, according to
the CWV.
Photo by Senior Airman Kamaile Chan

 

What do you think the public most needs to learn about women service members and veterans?

How strong and resilient we are; what tremendous assets we are to our communities. Compared to our male counterparts, women veterans are more likely to have college degrees and to work in management or professional occupations; we have significantly higher average household incomes than women who have never served. We return to our communities with leadership and technical skills and a high propensity to serve in new ways through volunteering and other forms of civic engagement. Unfortunately, media coverage often focuses exclusively on the challenges we face, such as higher rates of sexual trauma, homelessness, and suicide than our civilian peers. While those are very real issues, they do not represent the totality of our experience.

 

In your book Plenty of Time When We Get Home, you write about women veterans and post-traumatic stress disorder, and mention that many seem to cope with their experiences in combat differently than male veterans. What are some of the ways that women service members and veterans differ in how they deal with the wounds of war?

Anecdotally, I’ve heard that women are more likely to have talked about their experiences – a documentary filmmaker once told me that many of the male veterans she’d interviewed had shown tremendous emotion and told her they had never told anyone what they’d been through before, while the women had stronger social ties and had obviously talked about their experiences with one another. Research shows that women in general use both health care and mental health care at higher rates, so we seem more likely to seek help. Men and women veterans should know that VA can help, including through counseling at vet centers, which are predominantly staffed by other veterans. In fact, 25 percent of vet center employees are women veterans who have served in a war zone!

 

When you wrote your books, some military occupational specialties were not yet open to females. What are your thoughts on how that has changed?

The final barriers to women’s military service have finally fallen, and we now have female infantrymen and Ranger School graduates. It’s been incredibly rewarding to see the honorable service of millions of women validated by this progress.

Iraq and Afghanistan soldier Sgt. LuWanda Knuckles and her son, Zavian. Knuckles is the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs' women veterans coordinator. CWV Director Kayla M. Williams says, "... 25 percent of vet center employees are women veterans who have served in a war zone."

Iraq and Afghanistan soldier Sgt. LuWanda Knuckles and her son, Zavian. Knuckles is the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs’ women veterans coordinator. CWV Director Kayla M. Williams says, “… 25 percent of vet center employees are women veterans who have served in a war zone.”

How have your personal experiences, and the experiences of female soldiers you served with, affected how you perceive the issues and needs of women veterans and how you perform your job?

My personal experiences, both in the military and as a veteran, have given me a great deal of passion for the VA mission to serve those “who shall have borne the battle” and their families and survivors. At the same time, the eight and a half years I spent at the RAND Corporation doing research and analysis grounds me in the need to ensure that programs and services are evidence based and effective. Both my life and the data show that VA can be an important part of a successful transition after the military, so I’m very dedicated to ensuring women veterans are aware of the benefits they have earned – and that VA serves them effectively and sensitively when they come to us.

 

How have your husband’s experiences with his wound and treatment influenced your view of veterans’ issues or suggested how the system could be improved?

We’ve seen tremendous improvement in the systems and services available since Brian was injured in 2003. When he was released from Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center], there were no warrior transition units like there are today; another major improvement has been the development of the Integrated Disability Evaluation System. Case management and integration of caregivers into planning are other positive developments. One of my biggest concerns is that the public will forget about the commitment we have made to those who served our nation as the conflicts overseas wind down or get less media attention.

 

What advice would you give to a female recruit?

The advice I’ve traditionally given to women considering military service is to cry in the bathroom, avoid dating anyone in the workplace, and seek to advance your career by working hard to accomplish the mission. Now, I’d also encourage them to seek a mentor. Overall, I think it’s decent advice for anyone entering the workforce.