Leader Spotlight: Gretchen Klingler

Tell us about your military service.

Growing up, there was a short blip of about 20 minutes in high school where I thought it would be a fun idea to join the military, but I quickly put it out of my head in favor of a traditional college experience. 

Fast forward several years and no degree later, I found myself living a very different life than I had expected and was unsure of the direction I wanted to go in my life. Knowing I was treading water and had no solid options in front of me for growth, I decided to join the military after all. I joined for a multitude of reasons, but ultimately it was an opportunity to change my life, become self-sufficient, and serve something bigger than myself while I was working toward my goal of returning to college. 

I chose the Air Force (the BEST Force, though some feel that's up for debate - I disagree, haha!) in June 2009 to be an Airborne Cryptologic Linguist (1A8X1) and after Basic Training, I was sent to follow on training for Aircrew Fundamentals. After "Fundies" I went onto the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA where I spent approximately two years learning the Iraqi dialect of Arabic.

Although I did not officially become a linguist, I remained in Airborne Intelligence as a 1A8X2 - Airborne ISR Operator, and was later stationed at Hurlburt Field as a member of the 25th Intelligence Squadron. I deployed twice, once to Afghanistan and once to Djibouti and Iraq, before completing my enlistment in June 2015. I promptly returned to college at The Ohio State University to major in Anthropology and Arabic, and minor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Middle Eastern Studies.

How did your service shape the person you are today?

I really don't think it could be overstated how much impact the Air Force and the people I met during my service have had on my life. I learned to embrace difficult situations and carry on, how to cope with loss, separation, and failure, as well as how to humbly celebrate success. I learned how to best utilize networking opportunities, how to be responsible, keep focused, and about goal setting and planning. I discovered what kind of leader I do and don't want to be.

The Air Force made me who I am today without me realizing it at first. My friends and leaders from my time in service remain some of my key confidants, mentors, and biggest sources of encouragement. They continue to push me, advocate for me, and open their networks to me as I move closer to my goals and aspire to bigger things. They always believe in me, and because of them and the experiences I've had, I have more confidence in myself and my abilities to be the change I want to see. "Service Before Self" has become a leading principle in my life, and just as I thought I could stop pretending to like the Kool-Aid, it turns out I’ve come to enjoy drinking it!  LOL!

As a veteran, what sort of responsibility do you feel to speak up on issues that relate to American Ideals?

There are many ideals that America has come to represent around the world: freedom, democracy, strength in diversity, justice, prosperity, and individuality, among others. For me, it is important not only as a veteran, but as a citizen of this country, to continue to speak up for what is right. 

We are all citizen ambassadors, and I know that is especially true with members of the military as we work with our partners and allies in training, diplomacy, and on the battlefield. I dedicated a significant portion of my life to serving the higher ideals of this nation, and just because I no longer put on the uniform doesn't mean I've stopped serving.

The more I study and become involved in civic and advocacy organizations, the clearer it becomes to me that my voice as a veteran, as a woman, as a Millennial, as an Ohioan, has value. It is critical that veterans remain active and engaged in our communities and continue to utilize the leadership skills we learned in the military. The veteran community is comprised of a unique set of diverse individuals. When we come together and use our voices collectively, just as during our time in service, we can get the mission done. 

Tell us about one issue related to those ideals that is of particular importance or concern to you right now.  What are you doing about it?

Xenophobia. The "fear or deep-rooted dislike of strangers, foreigners, or outsiders" is a topic of serious concern to me and has become an increasingly contentious topic in our country, especially when it comes to immigration, race, religion, ethnicity.

I love to travel. I love to learn about people and cultures that are new to me. I love to eat new foods and explore new towns. As I write this, I'm sitting in a cafe in a small seaside town in Iceland (a country with an entire population half the size of my city back home), eating a "smoked lamb and bean salad" sandwich (which is delicious!) and sipping on a brand of drink I haven't seen since Afghanistan.

I believe that, in order to be a leader, you must develop an appreciation for those who you want to lead—for America, that is the world. That's a pretty big task, but no one wants to follow a leader they don't feel cares about them. Love and loyalty develop when we show others we care, not because of what's in it for us, but because it's the right thing to do. 

So, what am I doing about it? I’m traveling, writing, and telling my stories and the stories of others I meet along the way. I’m conducting research and learning about the experiences of immigrants and refugees—our current and future Americans. I’m advocating for those who may not feel comfortable advocating for themselves and helping to amplify their voices. I’m providing people with the opportunity to learn about others either through my experiences or by creating opportunities for diverse people to meet and connect. I’m teaching English and American citizenship classes to Iraqi and Syrian immigrants and refugees, and inviting my friends to come help me with the course. I’m forming professional relationships with my legislators, professors, and community leaders. In some cases, I am just a friendly voice that listens—but sometimes, one voice is all it takes to make a difference and tip the scales.

What would you say to other veterans about the role that they can play in these issues as citizens?

As veterans, we worked in diverse and dynamic locations. We worked with people from all over the United States, and all over the world, and we did it well. We have the communication and leadership skills to get things accomplished; continue to utilize those skills as you integrate yourself back into civilian life, both in and out of uniform.

If you have an interest or a passion that is important to you, don't wait to be voluntold, seek out opportunities to get involved! Talk about your experiences in the military, and use your story as a way to connect with and remind others how American ideals are still important in your life even after service. Don't think of yourself as another random voice in the crowd; you're a veteran. If there's anything we learned in the military, if talking doesn't work, use your command voice.