I've Never Met A Woman Who Said 'Make It Easier So I Can Do It.'

Photo courtesy of Tulsi Gabbard
Tulsi Gabbard is a whole lot of firsts. The 34-year-old is the first member of Congress from American Samoa, the first Hindu elected, one of the body’s first female combat veterans, and among its very few millennials. 

Rep. Gabbard was elected in 2012 to represent Hawaii’s second district, and is one of the Democratic party’s rising stars: She serves on the committees for foreign affairs and armed services, and and is vice chair of the DNC. Before coming to Washington, she served two tours of duty with the National Guard in Iraq.

On her trips back to Hawaii, she still loves to surf — and sometimes she's been glimpsed around the Capitol sporting a lei around her neck.

R29 caught up with Rep. Gabbard when she was back home in Hawaii (as part of our coverage of women in uniform) and chatted with her about her service in Iraq, coming home, and how she thinks we need to change the conversation around veterans.
Photo courtesy of Tulsi Gabbard
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When did you decide to join the armed services? 
"Like so many people, 9/11 impacted me in a deep way. After the attacks, I knew wanted to do my part in fighting against those who had declared war on us. I was serving in state legislature at the time, and I enlisted in the Hawaii Army National Guard, shipped off to basic training literally within weeks of my first legislative session wrapping up."

There's been a lot in the news about the Army's physical standards for women. Was training difficult? Or, is that a sexist question?
"It is kind of a sexist question. When people talk about the physical requirements of the military, often that’s followed by the assumption that somehow women are less physically equipped to meet the rigors of serving in the military than men. 

"The reality is everyone has a different level of physical fitness, whether you're a man or a woman. So, yes, training was challenging. Absolutely. But, I also scored one of the highest physical fitness scores in our entire company in basic training — and even in my old age now, I still manage to pass my annual physical fitness test with a score of ‘excellent.' There are so many different qualities and skills and capabilities that make a strong professional warrior. The physical aspect is one of them. 

"There’s a misperception, especially as we approach this historic policy change that’ll allow women to serve in some historically all-male combat units, that women are somehow looking for a lower standard that will allow them to get into these jobs. The opposite is true. When I look at all the women I’ve spoken to or heard from about this, not a single one of them has said, ‘Well, make it easier so I can do it.'"

When you think about your time overseas, what's stuck with you the most?
"Every day, one of my tasks was to go through a list of every single casualty from the day before, in the entire area of operations in Iraq. I had to go through and see, were any soldiers from our unit on that list, and if so, were they getting the care that they needed? Behind every one of those names was a spouse, or a parent, or children, siblings, back home.

"It impacted me personally, and frankly, also made me wonder: Do the people in Washington who make these decisions to send our troops into harm’s way, do they really get it? Do they understand what this cost is — the immeasurably high human cost of war? 

"I'll never forget when our brigade had our first KIA [killed in action], a young military intelligence sergeant from Hawaii. He was extremely talented, very smart, and highly successful in his job. He was in a vehicle and was killed by an IED, a roadside bomb. The memorial service that we held in our camp in Iraq is something I’ll never, ever forget. 

"Hearing his first sergeant call the roll of the soldiers in his unit and then coming to this soldier’s name, with no response, followed by the gun salute and 'Taps'… it was deeply haunting. People like him, and many others who I have never met, but whose sacrifice weighs heavily on the shoulders of our country, is something I keep close to me in work I do every day, but also in life."
Photo courtesy of Tulsi Gabbard

What was the experience of coming back like?
"Coming back is tough, regardless of what your job was overseas. It may take on different forms and different shapes, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation for every person. 

"I went through my own period of transition, recognizing that you don’t just hit the ground and push play on the life that you pushed pause on when you left. I was married before I left on my first deployment, and ended up getting divorced shortly after coming home, becoming one of an unfortunate large number of marriages that don’t make it through that experience. 

"Ultimately, it was those perspectives that really motivated me to run for Congress — to make sure that our generation of veterans’ voices are being heard. It’s a huge responsibility that I feel privileged to have."

What's the biggest issue facing that new generation of vets?
"There are a number of unacceptable issues vets face: unemployment; homelessness; high rates of suicide; the lack of the kind of timely, quality medical care that these veterans need. 

"At the heart of some of these issues is one of perception. People sometimes perceive veterans as 'broken,' as deserving pity, rather. What they should see is a person of great experience, an asset to our community and to a business.  

"Part of the answer is: Don’t treat veterans like they’re charity cases. Veterans are people who have a tremendous amount of leadership experience, who work well as a member of a team, who are result-oriented individuals, and who work well under pressure, who will always put the mission first."

What would you say to readers of your generation who've grown disillusioned with Washington? 
"When I look at people who feel disconnected from government, who feel frustrated with government, it’s completely understandable. They look and see a bunch of politicians they can't relate to and who are fighting about things that don’t matter in their real lives. It’s all about who’s going to win the next election, or empty rhetoric being thrown back and forth. 

"How we change that is getting outside of the mix, going out and reaching out to folks — young entrepreneurs, or young professionals, or student leaders. These are people who may not read the Washington, D.C. newspapers every day, but they’re people who care very much about what happens around them."
What's your go-to advice for getting where you want to be? 
When we make decisions in our life — whether it’s about what kind of job to get, or how to spend our time, or really what we want to do — the most important thing we can do is ask ourselves, 'Why am I doing this?' And then, more importantly, 'How can my actions have a positive impact on those around me?' 

"That’s something that we desperately need in politics, in business, in journalism, in the military, in health care, in education — every single field, every single sector. And if you do that, then you will experience the truest and deepest level of success and reward that’s possible; that transcends beyond getting a fancy title, or big paycheck, or nice things."
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