BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
The average American has three categories for all veterans: hero, victim and monster.
So says Capt. Melissa Boatwright, the founder of Battle Tested Veterans, a not-for-profit dedicated to changing the national veteran narrative through the use of data and first-person stories.
The idea for the non-profit came from her own experience leaving active duty and successfully reintegrating into civilian life. She said that story after story depicting veterans as either super-humans or lost souls struggling with addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and unemployment left her wondering where the stories of all the other well-adapted, successful veterans were.
Boatwright began her transition to civilian life after a decade as a broadcaster when she “started to feel cooped up and wanted to do something else.” She left active duty for civilian life and part-time service in the Individual Reserve in 2007. She finished her undergraduate degree within months of leaving full-time service and moved directly to a graduate program.
She said the flexibility of the Individual Reserve, where she first served as an Individual Mobilization Augmentee at Defense Media Activity in San Antonio, Texas, was great for her school schedule. It allowed her to work three to four weeks at a time in between semesters and on breaks and also remain connected with her Air Force family. She added that it was a great way to make good money without having to work the typical college job.
She received her commission in 2010 and now serves as the IMA to the public affairs officer at the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Beale Air Force Base, California. She has also experienced success as a civilian and she is currently the global head of program management at Thomson Reuters. She also finished her master’s in business administration this summer.
It was in 2011, after her own transition to civilian life was settled that the idea for Battle Tested Veterans began to grow. She said watching her husband separate from active duty that year and experience the same emotions, struggles, successes and questions helped her put a name to the things she had experienced during her separation. This made her aware of the fact that neither of them, or any of their veteran friends, for that matter, fit the popular media narrative.
“I felt compelled to find a way to help people experience veterans and know them like I know them,” she said. “I actually first applied to host a TED event focused on veteran stories but they turned me down, so I decided to find my own way.”
Her MBA program provided her the means to turn her idea into something tangible. As part of the coursework, Boatwright was required to develop a mock business plan. Instead of a dummy, she took the opportunity to put legs on her idea for a non-profit that would work to reframe the perception of veterans in the corporate world and popular culture.
According to Boatwright, the problems veterans face are not unemployment and high rates of mental disorder, as the popular narrative would lead people to believe. Veterans, in fact, are employed at a higher rate than the general population, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; and PTSD, while higher than the rate of the civilian population, affects fewer than 15 percent of all service members, according to the Veteran’s Administration’s Center for PTSD. So, if veterans aren’t facing major unemployment or extreme rates of mental disorders, what is the problem?
Perception. Boatwright said the oversimplification of a complex story told over and over by the media, and many veteran-focused non-profits, as well, have led to the popular misconceptions the average population carries around about veterans.
Boatwright sees this problem affecting many areas of life, but one she is particularly passionate about is employment. While she will be the first one to admit that veteran unemployment has dropped below the national average, she will also point out that many veterans are often working jobs far below their experience level. She said employers see veterans heroes but not strategic assets. In other words, they might make great baristas but not vice presidents.
“I’m not interested in the number of hires. I’m more interested in what level they are hired at,” she said. “How many are professionals? That’s what I want to address.”
She added that If a company is hiring the majority of veterans at entry level or only in a handful positions, then they are missing out on the value veterans can provide an organization. Veterans also lose in these situations because they miss out on the opportunity to show their real value.
With Battle Tested Veterans, Boatwright hopes to challenge the national veteran narrative using what she knows best: story and data. Her organization is built around TED Talk-style events and podcasts that feature veterans from all walks of life opening up about their lives. Boatwright said the character-driven stories have real power to produce change perceptions because they create empathy.
The first proof-of-concept event was held on Veteran’s Day 2015 at the NASDAQ Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco. The event featured nine veterans sharing their stories with 120 executives and HR leaders from companies such as Facebook, Airbnb and Thomson-Reuters.
Dan Bellis was one of the veterans Boatwright invited to speak at the first Battle Tested Veterans event. Bellis served as a broadcaster in the Air Force for 12 years. He first met Boatwright in the 1990s when they were stationed together in Germany but lost contact until recently reconnecting via Facebook. He got involved in Battle Tested Veterans when he responded to a post she made asking for interesting veteran stories because, as a stay at home dad, he felt people should hear his perspective.
“We don’t all come back to be law enforcement or anti-terrorism officers,” he said. “We can be moms and dads, too.”
He also wanted to lend a hand in helping Boatwright with her goal by getting out in front. “You don’t see the functional vets, just the ones off the rails,” he said.
Another former colleague who spoke at the event was Zephrine Hanson. Hanson was Boatwright’s roommate at their first duty station in Germany and they have remained close ever since, despite Hanson’s departure from the Air Force in 2004.
Hanson was a military photographer and after leaving Europe was assigned to the Wilford Hall Medical Center. She had a strong stomach, so she was assigned to photographically document medical procedures and traumas. She was good at her job and was soon sent to Dover Air Force Base to photograph the remains of soldiers who had paid the ultimate price and were transiting through the Port Mortuary there.
“I am honored and proud that I did that, but there was a cost for me,” said Hanson, who wrestles with post-traumatic stress disorder to this day.
“I was still doing my job everyday but I wasn’t sleeping at night,” she said. “I was really struggling.”
After her time at Dover, she returned home to Texas where her symptoms did not improve and eventually resulted in a medical evaluation board that ended her career in the Air Force. After a permanent change of station to Florida with her husband, he also returned to civilian life. The couple again relocated to Los Angeles to attend college and pursue civilian careers. Hanson continued struggling with PTSD until she eventually found a therapist who helped guide her through lifestyle changes that started her recovery. Battle Tested Veterans helped her continue that process.
When Boatwright first approached her old friend to help with her idea to create a TED Talk-like event, the photographer thought she would help with administrative stuff and take pictures. But then Boatwright asked her to speak about her struggle with PTSD.
“I would do anything in my power to support her but it ended up helping me,” she said.
"It was important to me that as part of the Battle Tested Veterans event, we didn't ignore the struggles that veterans have as a result of processing, healing and learning from their experiences in the military," said Boatwright. "It's part of our collective story, but it's not the only part. There are many more stories of post-traumatic growth and resilience like Zephrine's; people need to hear those stories too."
In addition to giving her a voice and platform to talk about the struggles and complexities many veterans face in civilian life, including her journey raising her three children with Autism spectrum disorder, the event also offered connections she never would have made otherwise. She said it was the first time she’d been in a large group of veterans since leaving the service more than a decade before. This allowed her to talk with people who shared a common language that she thought she had put away for good. The experience also helped her rewrite her internal narrative regarding what happened to her during her time in the Air Force and changed her perspective on what she could achieve. Hanson also made valuable connections that put her on a path to entrepreneurship and even learned ways to improve her marriage.
“[Boatwright] opened so many doors for me, and going to the NASDAQ [Center] put me on the global stage to say ‘you can be successful with PTSD,’” said Hanson.
Following the nine speakers, many attendees stayed for the social hour, interacting with each other and the veterans. Boatwright had budgeted an hour but was asking the facility staff for more time as her attendees continued their talks long past the 60-minute mark.
Jim Kleiber, an entrepreneur and mobile app developer who attended the event, said the two-hour program opened his eyes to what it really means to be a veteran, as well as the diversity of paths they take as they reintegrate into the civilian world.
Kleiber, who has developed an app that he says helps people self-reflect, said civilians often don’t know the questions to ask or how to make a connection with a veteran. He believes the Battle Tested Veterans program can help veterans open up in real and honest ways that will build a common ground for them and their civilian counter parts.
“I hope it continues to grow,” he said. “I see it as a strong platform for helping civilians understand veterans and for the reintegration process.”
Boatwright was encouraged by the inaugural event and has plans in place to continue growing her non-profit. This year she will again hold the San Francisco Veteran’s Day event at the NASDAQ Center and is in the research and planning phase to expand to more events in subsequent years. Following the 2015 event, she also started the Battle Tested Veterans podcast to share even more veteran stories. She hopes to reach 1,000 downloads by the end of the year and has plans in place to reach 3 million in three years.
To learn more about Battle Tested Veterans and listen to the podcasts, visit http://www.battletestednotbroken.com/.