Kayla M. Williams, director of the Center for Women Veterans, said she enlisted in the military after feeling a need to make a move that would make a difference for the country.
“I had this feeling that if I didn’t do something radically different, I would wake up 40 years old with a white picket fence and a minivan, 2.5 children and a golden retriever and not know how it had happened to me,” Williams said at the 6th Annual Women Veterans in Higher Education Conference in the Titan Student Union on Saturday.
Williams said she spent five years enlisted in the U.S. Army as an Arabic linguist. One of those years was spent deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom, when she participated in the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
“I had to really break out of my comfort zone to take control of my own life. I also wanted to give back to our country,” she said.
Williams, one of the conference’s special guest speakers, also talked about her experience at war as one of the few women in combat.
“If a guy had a breakdown and couldn’t handle the stresses of combat, it was ‘See, Bob can’t take it.’ But if a woman had a breakdown it was ‘See, this is why women don’t belong here,'” she said. “People certainly didn’t understand what it was like to be a woman at war for our country. They had no idea what we were experiencing and I felt totally invisible.”
Representatives from 33 colleges gathered for the conference, which recognized women’s unique experiences in war and encouraged their journey in higher education.
“I want to recognize you for your courage and thank you for putting yourselves in harm’s way for me, for my family, for our community and for our country,” said Fram Virjee, Cal State Fullerton interim president.
Virjee said the CSUF Veterans Resource Center has been combined with the Veterans Certification office, which provides enrollment certification each semester to the VA for veterans, reservists and dependents of service-disabled or deceased veterans, to become more convenient in providing student services.
Williams said she remembered the struggles she encountered when coming back from war. She said her husband dealt with “code black moments” where he would experience emotional crises which eventually led her ceasing her service to help with her husband’s recovery.
However, Williams also said she saw improvements and found her community after she and her husband began volunteering at nonprofit organizations.
“By sharing our own stories of slipping through the cracks — ending up on unemployment, getting lost in the system, struggling with post-traumatic stress — we were advocating for better systems and services to benefit others,” Williams said. “Instead of being ashamed of our challenges, we lobbied to close the systemic gaps that existed, so those coming home after us would not fall through the same cracks.”