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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.