Kayla Williams recently heard a story.
A female Air Force veteran, not in uniform, parked her car at the grocery store, in a spot reserved for military veterans. She noticed someone looking at her, and returned after shopping to find a note tucked into her windshield.
“ ‘How dare you take a place reserved for our veterans?’ was written in the note,” Williams said. “Despite historic recent changes in women’s role in the military, such attitudes persist.”
Williams, the newly appointed director of the Center for Women Veterans at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, will talk about her work and experiences in the military at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater.
Williams is well-suited for her current position. She is a combat veteran of the Iraq War and has amassed years of relevant experience and education in the field. Her record, including writing two books — 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 — was sufficiently impressive that she was invited to be part of this week’s Chautauqua program before she was offered her present position.
After a childhood that “taught me what it means to be poor,” she earned a degree in literature from Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
“I was sort of settling into life, had a job, a boyfriend, a house,” Williams said. “But something was missing. I wanted to challenge myself.”
She enlisted in the Army. The year was 2000.
“I wanted to serve my country,” she said. “I also knew graduate school was in my future, and liked the idea of the GI Bill helping me to afford it.”
She volunteered for foreign language training, and was assigned, quite randomly, she said, to study Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in California. She studied there for 63 weeks.
Soon thereafter, the U.S. launched the Iraq war, and preparing Williams for a relatively passive role analyzing enemy SIGINT (signals intelligence) turned into something completely different.
“Remember shock and awe?” she said. “Well, Iraqi commo was pretty much shocked and awed early in the war. There was not a whole lot for me to analyze.”
She wound up instead doing infantry combat patrols and acting as a field interpreter for company and platoon commanders. Gender-specific body armor was not available for her.
“I certainly saw combat,” she said.
In addition to her translating duties, however, she was able to defuse many tense situations.
“I had dated a Palestinian once, so I understood some cultural differences between Americans and Middle Easterners,” she said. “I knew, for instance, that Americans generally prefer some physical distance when they are in conversation. Iraqis and other Middle Easterners will stand close, and men will sometimes hold hands in public. I was able to introduce some cultural sensitivity to translating. It probably kept some situations from deteriorating.”
And yes, she said, it was “often very scary.”
Like many women in the military, Williams said she was the victim of sexual harassment while serving.
“The nature of war is that you have to trust your combat colleagues,” she said. “I know how important that trust is, but also how it can be eroded by inappropriate behavior.”
Serving with the famed 101st Airborne Division, Williams was in Iraq for a year. She left the army after five years, and did indeed use the GI Bill to help finance her master’s degree in international affairs at American University.
Along the way, she met and married a soldier who was injured in Iraq.
“He suffered a penetrating brain injury, and he has struggled at times with post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said.
Her husband worked for a while for Veterans Affairs, but is helping with the children, aged 6 and 5, while Williams tackles her busy new job. The family will accompany her on her first visit to Chautauqua, and the kids are already enrolled in Children’s School for their week on the grounds.
After the army and graduate study, Williams worked for the RAND Corporation on national security and VA issues.
“I became an outspoken advocate on issues relating to women soldiers re-entering society,” she said.
Given her history working with the VA, Williams said her current job felt like a homecoming. And she feels a powerful loyalty to the military and to the VA.
“I guess being in the service is like being kids in a family,” she said. “You can beat each other up all day long, but you won’t let anyone outside the service beat up the organization. I want to make sure everyone understands that the Army is certainly one place where women get equal pay for equal work. There is subsidized day care. These are significant benefits for women, and often the civilian sector struggles to catch up to what the military offers.”
Williams said women were limited for many years to 2.5 percent of the military forces.
“That’s a thing of the past,” she said. “Women now make up over 9 percent of the military, and planners anticipate this figure rising to 15 percent of active duty personnel and 18 percent of reservists in the future.”
So women’s VA is a growth industry.
“The VA has certainly recognized this,” Williams said. “They are in the midst of a major transformation to meet this coming demand, and I’m proud to be part of it.”
Despite those trends, Williams laments the obduracy of older ideas and attitudes. She spoke of her German shepherd. The dog was hit by a vehicle and lost a leg.
“One day I was walking the dog and an older man approached. He looked at us and said, ‘Hit by an IUD?’ I’ll presume he meant to say IED,” she said. “But what really impacted me was his assumption that my dog was a military service dog, but he did not extend the same thought to me. … We’re moving ahead, but there’s a ways to go.”