Leader Spotlight: Maureen Elias

Veterans for American Ideals is recognizing veteran leaders who are continuing their service by building unity and standing up for American values. Through a series of interviews, we’re asking VFAI leaders to share more about how their service shaped them and what responsibility they feel veterans have to speak up on issues that relate to our national ideals.

Today, on International Women’s Day, VFAI is celebrating the accomplishments of fearless women and in particular, women veterans. This interview is with Maureen Elias: a U.S. Army veteran, military spouse, veteran advocate, and mom of three.

Tell me about your military service? What branch? Where did you serve? Why did you join the military?

When I was 18, I won a trip to Washington, D.C. for a conference. While I was there, I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Seeing that wall, and absorbing the huge loss our nation suffered, it simply took my breath away. I knew right then and there I was going to serve in the military, I just didn’t know yet in what capacity. Then I toured FBI headquarters. I learned about counterintelligence and knew this was the way in which I wanted to serve the nation. I chose the Army and I served for 5 and a half years as a counterintelligence agent with assignments in Darmstadt, Germany and Monterey, California. I separated when an injury sustained in Advanced Individualized Training degenerated to the point that I was no longer able to serve.

How did your service shape the person you are today?

I grew up in a church that holds service to others as one of the highest callings, so the military was a natural fit to the values I had been raised with. I served with people of all backgrounds. I loved that about the military–our differences didn’t matter, in fact they made us stronger. When we are serving together, we are one.

Military service also helped me develop confidence in myself. Growing up as the middle child of 11 children, I was never the one with the highest marks in school. In fact, I graduated high school with mediocre marks and dropped out after my first year of community college. However, in the military, I quickly rose to the top of all my classes – I realized I was not dumb, I was just lacking a passion for learning. 

These successes, combined with my newfound love of learning, drove me to seek further education. This December I graduated with my master’s in mental health counseling with a 4.0 GPA, a far cry from my pitiful grades in community college. Today, I have a job where I can continue to serve others and I could not be more fulfilled.

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

Because I served my country, I feel a responsibility to care for this nation. With the military force being comprised of less than 20 percent women, when a woman veteran speaks up, her voice bears a certain weight. Being a military spouse and a mother adds another dimension to my identity and what I have to say. It is up to all Americans to speak up when injustice occurs, whether that be using your voice at roundtable discussions, organizing in your own community, or engaging with your members of Congress. Each of these methods plays a part in the fight against hate, prejudice, and inequality.

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

Keeping our promise as a nation is of particular importance to me. For example, making sure that we protect the Special Immigrant Visa program for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters and translators is not only the right thing to do, it’s what we promised them when they signed up to help. Our nation’s leaders write seemingly blank checks to cover the costs of war – we owe it to those who helped us to ensure they reach safety.

Keeping the promise to veterans is also the work I do at the Veterans Health Council at Vietnam Veterans of America, where I research, educate, and advocate for veterans, including those with “bad paper discharges” as a result of a mental health illness. These individuals frequently return from serving in combat zones or are survivors of military sexual assault. My job is to ensure all veterans receive the best healthcare available.

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

As veterans we feel a responsibility to do right by our brothers and sisters in arms who gave their lives for this country. One way to honor them is to speak out for the values they fought to defend. Advocating for our shared national ideals through VFAI is a great place to start.

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

In this divisive moment in our nation, veteran voices are universally respected. We have the power to unify, and our fellow citizens are listening. By sharing my experiences with my civilian neighbors, I can provide a different perspective and build bridges of understanding. So I would encourage veterans to seize this moment to use this platform, whether on Capitol Hill ot in your local community. I’d also encourage vets to again get ‘lost in service’ – it can be a truly healing, transformative experience.

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