A Veteran Activist on Why She Enlisted and What She’s Fighting For Now

In an effort to learn more about what it means to be a veteran today, I spoke with one who understands it inside and out. Not only is Allison Jaslow a veteran herself — she’s a former Army Captain who served two combat deployments in Iraq — but she’s worked as a campaign manager and political strategist in Washington, and is currently the Executive Director of the largest nonprofit organization for post-9/11 vets, IAVA. Read on to hear her as-told-to story and learn how you can help.

How it all started

I’m the only success story of 8th grade “career day” that I know. I was going to school in Arlington, Virginia, when I found myself on a bus for a career day field trip I got randomly slotted into. We went to Fort Myer, Virginia, which is where the Army ceremonial units are stationed. On that trip I was pleasantly surprised, or maybe even shocked, that what I learned there really spoke to a sense of service that I still have today. I became enamored with the military and fixated on the idea that it was going to be what I did with my life.

I had a bit of a rocky upbringing — through high school there were points where I didn’t even know whether I’d go to college, but I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, I wanted to be in the Army. As I got closer to graduation I explored enlisting, but with a mixture of ROTC scholarships I ended up getting a great deal at a military school in Missouri. I started in August 2000 at a place called Wentworth Military academy, then I finished my undergrad at the University of Central Missouri state university, where I eventually got my commission into the Army as a Second Lieutenant.

Enlisting in a tense time

The army I signed up for and the army I served in were two completely different things. It was the beginning of my sophomore year of military school when the twin towers were hit. I remember feeling panicked because my parents lived in Northern Virginia, near the Pentagon, and I was having a hard time getting ahold of my them. In that moment my life sort of shifted. It put all our lives on a completely different trajectory.

I had colleagues who dropped out of ROTC and enlisted in the war right away. I stayed in. I’ll never forget lining up in October on our way to a field training exercise at 4 or 5 a.m. when the president got the authority to authorize force in Iraq. It was surreal. I was eager to finish school. I wanted to graduate early but ROTC wouldn’t let me. So I went home to intern my last semester of college at an organization called Emily’s List.

When you’re in the Army and that’s your job, it’s hard to think about a war going on and not helping.

I was sworn in in May 2004, graduated in September and was deployed to Iraq the day after Thanksgiving that same year. I think all of the women I worked with in Washington DC and at Emily’s List were way more horrified that I was going to war than I was. When you’re in the Army and that’s your job, it’s hard to think about a war going on and not helping. I don’t remember ever being scared.

Before you deploy, you go through a program called Soldier Readiness Processing. That’s when you get your anthrax shot and smallpox shots, and do really sobering things like fill out your will, decide who’s going to be the power of attorney for you while you’re gone. There were parts of that process where I had to come to terms with what I was doing, but then at a certain point, you’re there, and you get on a plane and there’s a mission and that’s your focus.

I was deployed twice. The first time, in 2004, I served about 11 months. The second time was in January 2007; within 60 days of being over there, the president signed off on a troop surge so I ended up staying for 15 months.

My first deployment

My first deployment was hands down my toughest one. I was the Second Lieutenant in charge of a platoon of soldiers who deployed with a warehouse mission. We took over four different warehouse operations in Taji, Iraq, just north of Baghdad. About 60 days in, a subsidiary of Halliburton contracted out our warehouses, so my soldiers’ mission got taken away and were reclassified to do security with a transportation company. So for the rest of the deployment, my soldiers were in charge of protecting petroleum tankers that were driving through combat environments. I didn’t get to go out with them as much as I would have liked, because I had duties back at the warehouses.

In fact one of the reasons my deployment was hard was less about the danger I was in, and more about feeling like I wasn’t there “in the trenches” with my soldiers as much as I should have been. Even though the warehouses were contracted out, I still had to be the accountable officer there. There was no choice; my colonel told me I was stuck. What really wore on me was not only the stress of balance both of those missions — warehouse oversight and the convoy security — but that I was doing them both at the same time. I would be at the warehouse during the day and then go on the road with them all night long sometimes. It was pretty grueling.

I was on missions where we got shot at and dealt with IEDs, but most of the issues I dealt with were small ones. The first set of casualties we experienced was on a mission I couldn’t be on. While driving down the highway, another platoon leader bumped the car next to them and the car blew up. That was in April 2005. We lost another soldier in June.

I’ve always felt very grateful that I was good at compartmentalizing.

I was the one who had to go into [the platoon leader’s] barracks and go through all of the stuff and pack it up to send home. I had 72 hours. That was a particularly sobering experience. I think I was 22 at the time. I think to cope and push through, you have to have the ability to just hunker down and wall it out as much as possible so you can persist. It’s your job.

It impacts everybody differently. I’ve always felt very grateful that I was good at compartmentalizing. It was surprising for me to see when these things happened, how some people I thought were the strongest among us just totally broke down.

Returning from the war

When you come back, it’s hard to return to who you were before. You’re fundamentally changed by the experience. You grow up a lot. Before you even step on a plane you come to terms with your mortality. You figure out all these ways to cope, whether it’s to soldier on after you’ve lost somebody or even literally just to survive. You become very vigilant. When you spend 11 months of your life walking around being worried about something popping up, blowing up, it’s really hard to decompress from that.

I haven’t experienced PTSD, but I don’t know if that means I won’t ever experience it. We see that a lot with Vietnam veterans; decades after they return, stuff starts bubbling to the surface. I’m managing it okay, but I know everybody doesn’t have the same emotional makeup and everybody perceives and deals with this stuff differently. I have a deep level of understanding for that. One of the things we have to tackle [as a country], is destigmatizing that. Even the toughest soldiers struggle with this kind of stuff, and if they don’t get help they’ll feel isolated and fight the battle alone.

Veterans are so politicized

I think historically in Washington, from a policy perspective, veterans issues have often been one thing that brings people together to get stuff done, no matter how trying the times. I do think there is evidence of that since the current president was sworn in. The other side of that coin, though, is that no matter what year it is in America, or what party is doing what, we’re oftentimes politicized. We’re dressing on the backdrop of a speech or tokenized. Sometimes it feels like veterans get thrown in front of things as a distraction when people don’t want to take accountability for something.

Photo via IAVA.

There are a lot of examples recently where we have been unfortunately politicized, whether it be Trump skipping a debate to hold a veterans fundraiser, Sarah Palin making some pretty reckless comments on the campaign trail, everything that’s been happening around Gold Star families or the NFL protest debates (I’m not offended by the kneeling — I personally would stand and put my hand over my heart but I also fought for people to have the right to peacefully protest), it’s really tricky.

Changing the conversation

I would say as somebody who’s been in politics and is now a full-time veterans advocate at IAVA, Iraq and Afghan Veterans of America, I’ve felt really grateful to be in the position I am now, because when we’re in the media discussing this stuff, I have the opportunity to elevate the dialogue and get out of the partisan trenches.

I also get to share the experience and perspective of somebody who’s served, and that unfortunately often gets lost in the political rhetoric. My organization can start a different conversation with the media and the American people about the service and sacrifice of not just service members, but of their families and the veteran population that continues to serve even once they hang up their uniforms.

When people think of a vet they definitely don’t think of somebody who looks like me.

IAVA started in 2004 because our generation of veterans didn’t have a voice in Washington. We often advocate on behalf of the entire community, but our generation is very different. We’re much more diverse, for instance, and many more of us are serving multiple tours. That’s one of the reasons why our organization is willing to prioritize things like support for women veterans, which is our focus right now. Out of the entire vet population of 21 million, women are a small segment, but of the post-9/11 veterans, we’re about 20 percent.

I’m so determined now to get women veterans more recognition. When people think of a vet they definitely don’t think of somebody who looks like me. That’s been something we’ve been trying to tackle head on. A lot of women feel invisible. It’s been a real struggle to get basic services, like gynecologists and other women’s health initiatives, at VA hospitals.

Photo via IAVA.

We’re not only trying to get women equity in terms of support services, but one of the keystones of our campaign is working to get the motto of the US Department of Veterans Affairs changed. It’s currently, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”

I’m more convinced now of the sexism than I was before I picked this particular fight because people at the Department of Veterans Affairs are really digging in: they don’t want to change it, they don’t think there are cultural issues at the VA or that changing a motto could be a good first step toward changing a culture. They’d rather be blissfully ignorant about the way things are for women vets. We’re in a fight and I think I’m gonna win.

How people can help

I don’t believe anybody does what IAVA does better, especially in terms of advocating for the post-9/11 generation of veterans. If you don’t know what to do and want to help, you should donate, but outside of that, I would ask every American to challenge themselves to not just thank and appreciate veterans for their service but to try to understand our experience. And to value not only the service we’ve done but the sacrifices we’ve made. It has to be a personal challenge to get that level of understanding, but we’d all be better for it. We would understand at a deeper level what it means when we go to war, and it wouldn’t be as easy to just send troops somewhere. We should have a little more of an emotional connection when we make a political decision.

You can donate to IAVA here.

Feature Photo by Louisiana Mei Gelpi; Creative Direction by Emily Zirimis. 

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  • Beautiful piece, Haley.

  • Veronie

    Thank you for sharing this! This helped me understand what it’s like to be a veteran so much more. I am incredibly grateful for the courageous service of our military. Thank you all so much.

  • Teresa

    Thank you for your service.

  • Lama m.

    i’m not comfortable with people glorifying armies, i don’t care what your reasons or your thoughts soldiers around the world are scums. i live in the region where wars never stop whether that was israel killing and terrorizing the palestinians, americans killing and raping the iraqis, syrians killing and torturing each other, and lastly my own goddamn country killing and starving the yemenis. so no, i won’t thank you for your fucking service.
    on another note, fuck the brits for wearing their poppies and annually celebrating their army that might even beat the americans on being the most murderous in the history of the world.

    • As a Brit, I’m not defending the atrocities committed by our forces at all, but the poppies are about remembering those who died in the First World War. There is no ‘celebration’ about it, as anyone who has participated in the minutes of silence would tell you.

      • Lama m.

        it’s no longer used to commemorate those who died in ww1, it’s worn now to honor those who died “in behalf of their country” it’s also used to financially support the royal british legion

    • A lot of atrocities are committed during wars, but I don’t think it’s fair to generalize all soldiers as “scum.” I think many individuals, such as Allison, join the army in order to make a positive difference in one way or another.

      • Lama m.

        i guess the iraqis should thank her for her positive impact on their country! there’s nothing positive that can come out of a corrupt institution like the american army

      • Elke V.

        Wishing to make a positive contribution unfortunately doesn’t make it so. I’m not from the US and the fierce reverence of veterans is a very strange thing to me. More often than not soldiers are deployed to protect interests rather than people. If their service – willingly or not – was to dictators instead of freedom; destabilise instead of stabalise; money instead of humanity, thanking them for their service would feel very weird indeed. Obviously veterans should get the care they need (just as everyone in society should be taken care of), but to me the imperative to support the troops often reads like an attempt to stop any criticism of the politics, interests and consequences soldiers fought for or are fighting for.

        • I’d like to note that I never stated my opinion on whether or not I support the troops; I merely stated that some (not all) soldiers join the army for positive reasons, and that not all members are scum.

        • Jasmin Sander

          That’s a really good point, and I think that’s why it’s so important to separate the concept of support for soldiers and the work they’re trained to do (which is not limited to violence) from the politics etc as you say. People join the military for a lot of different reasons. The soldiers don’t make the high-level decisions, they take orders, and they ultimately (should) work for the government and the people. So to people who oppose war or the military ops your country engages in, get political and make yourself heard. But making insulting generalizations about the people implementing the policy just because you don’t like the policy isn’t a good place to start.

    • Teresa

      Saying all soldiers are “scum” is the same as saying all Muslims are terrorists or all Mexicans are lazy (which we know to not be true on all accounts). Judging individuals or groups based on stereotypes is never a good thing. I don’t think it’s fair to generalize entire groups of people when the majority are regular people making personal sacrifices in an effort to make a positive impact in the world.

      • Sarah

        I think this is beside the point. Its totally a whole different argument to compare the soldiers are ‘scum’ argument to saying all Muslims are terrorist or Mexicans are lazy. For one – soldiers by definition partake in the activity of war, people choose to be soldiers, you don’t ‘choose’ your ethnicity or your culture…so why are we even supporting a war in the first place? And making a positive impact on the world?! I’m sorry but since when was war a positive impact? Particularly on the civilians of the country that has to put up with this bullshit.

        • Again, no one here has stated their opinion on whether or not they support war. The point she made is a valid one; you can’t generalize the whole based on the abhorrent behavior of some.

          • Lama m.

            i’m not sure that you understand the main point of joining the army hayley, especially the american! you don’t become a barista thinking you’d never be asked to make coffee.

      • Lama m.

        generalization is you assuming i’m a muslim based on from where i live

    • I’ve been following the situation in Yemen and it’s awful.

      But as many here have said, not all soldiers are scum. Sure there are those as well (as in any profession) but ‘all’ is a little too much. Knowing many, many soldiers they are some of the most peace-loving, conflict-avoiding people I know. Of course this is Finland we are talking about and we aren’t necessarily all over the place but still.

    • Lama m.

      another strange thing is that in the subject of the wars the us wages on other nations, americans seem to always talk about its impact on them and their poor soldiers, never about its effects on the people of that country.

    • G

      I find this so interesting because I had similar thoughts to you even though I’m not from a war-torn region of countries. What bothers me so much about armies/soldiers is their absolute willingness to give up every ability to make a morally right decision – no matter for what reason you enlisted (i know that most people who do so do it because they want to help), you give up any power to decide what is right or not and hand it over to your supervisor/ the president as she describes in the article. no soldier has the ability to actually help anyone should his or her superiors decide that this isn’t the right way to go about. there are so many other ways to help and support society other than joining the army and while i wouldn’t have phrased it as strongly as you did (surely because of my background), i absolutely agree that americas relationship with their army is a very unsettling one.

      • Meghan Johnson

        I think Peace Corps volunteers should be thanked for serving the cause of peace and relationships on behalf of the US.

  • My office actually shares the floor with Allison and the IAVA team! After having a front row seat to the work they do, it’s really great to see them getting this attention. Plus, it was a very funny and pleasant surprise for me this afternoon!

  • Aleda Johnson

    I’ve always wanted to hear more about the experiences of women in the military, especially since they lifted the ban on women in frontline combat. We always here this masculinized, hard ass message from military men, but I know it can’t all be bicep flexing and gun shooting. We are fundamentally built differently, so how does a woman’s time in the military differ from what is considered “typical” (periods, long greasy hair, the heirarchy, dinner chats, etc.)?

    And thank you for your service, both as an active duty soldier and a veteran.

  • Destruction

    i never really came back

    i got off the plane and i was all alone and i have been ever since

    • Sara

      I am so sorry to hear that! Have you tried reading books/watching movies on that subject? I have always found that that helps very much to understand your own situation and get your healing process starting…

  • spicyearlgrey

    I have so many questions! I imagine a big part of your job would have been a feeling of empowerment and contribution. Was there ever a time where you felt your personal ethics been challenged? How did you cope?

    • spicyearlgrey

      Also, a bit more of a superficial question, given the platform that this is: having worn a uniform for so long do you find that your everyday choices (fashion or other) are made more leaning towards practicality or creativity?

      Also another question, is it unfeminist of me to ask this question?

  • Peter

    To the Editor Open Letter to the United States of America
    Peter Macdonald 465 Packers falls rd Lee NH 03861 603-659-6217
    How can Veteran organizations, President Trump, all the down to the average citizen that never served in our Armed Forces Brags about respect for and helping the veteran. A family in Lee NH takes there own money buys land gives it to the church free and clear to serve the religious needs of U.S. Military Veterans but the town of Lee NH says no homeless veterans allowed in our community. The newspapers refuse to print the story for fear homeless veterans may come to their community next. This family built a church on the property for the veterans, family and public and it is used daily along with the eleven acres 100% for the religious needs of the veteran. See for your self at http://www.veteranresortchapel.com or go to face book page but notice the s on the end of veteran to face book veterans resort chapel and see the photos.
    A Strafford County Superior Court Judge ruled the VRC does not meet the judge’s religious criteria to be a church so it cannot exist in Lee NH. The VRC started in 1980 as recorded in the Strafford County Deed of records. The deed to the property has a stipulation in the deed from now to eternity the property has to be used for the religious practice of our U.S. Armed Forces Veterans, the VRC has 5 active minister, the VRC holy book was written and published in 1980 and explains the VRC creed is “we are a church of Born Again Christian based non-denominational believers in one God is the same for all called by different names and spoken to (prayed to) in different religious languages but it is the same. The land in Lee is zoned for a church and the only way to stop the homeless veteran church was to rule the VRC was not religious.
    Well over 23 homeless veterans have been helped by our religious faith. Fifteen have become productive members of our nation. Three have died from their combat disabilities. Lee NH evicted four back to the streets to live.
    What kind of society allows the men and women that gave for our nation to be free will not even speak up for these men and women. President Trump and Governor Sununu how much effort would it take to write a Proclamation to the Town of Lee to tell them to allow Homeless combat veteran church to exist on land zoned for a church. The Proclamation will have no legal authority but it will make the news media and inform everyone just how Lee NH feels about our children that went off to war and came back men and women needing our help. Lee NH is made up of the finest people but it is just like most other communities afraid of people like us because we have immoral and inhuman acts in history.
    War is hell but coming back to a nation where veterans originations, President Trump, Governor Sununu, news media and the average citizen shuns us to the point not even a family can be allowed to help just is not right.
    President Trump and Governor Sununu how much effort would it take to let a great nation like the United States of America know what Lee NH is doing to our homeless combat veterans. To let the town of Lee NH win by attrition is a immoral and inhuman act that we as a nation should not tolerate. President Trump how much time would it take just to tweet about it.

    Peter Macdonald Sgt USMC, Minister VRC