Celebrating Veterans’ Advocacy with Ashley Gorbulja-Maldonado, Public Affairs Specialist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Ashley proudly served her country as an Army National Guard veteran for over eight years and continues to serve her community as a leading voice in supporting America’s military-connected community. After reviewing America’s veteran systems’ inconsistent patterns, Ashley realized that a change needed to be made. Today, Ashley is the CEO and Founder of GuideOn Education. This service builds meaningful and sustainable veteran programming in higher education, nonprofits, and corporations wanting to tap into the military market.
She has been recognized as a 2019 Ms. Veteran American Top 10 Finalist, 2019 Third Overall Best Social Media Influencer: Military and Veteran Community Choice Awards, and the 2019 Finalist for Sisters in Service Awards. Ashley is also a co-host of The American Legion’s podcast, Tango Alpha Lima.
Gina: Ashley, welcome. I want to begin by thanking you for your service to our country. I’m honored to be speaking with you about the history of women in the military as part of our Women’s History Month celebration.
Ashley: Thank you so much, Gina. It’s an absolute pleasure. It has been a pleasure to serve, and I do appreciate that generous introduction. Us vets are typically a humble group, so hearing some of that read back to me, I’m like, “Ooh, is that me? Who is she talking about?”
Gina: I know you’re used to being on the other side of the interview as a co-host of Tango Alpha Lima, so I get to put you on the spot today.
Ashley: Challenge accepted.
What’s it like to be a woman in the Army National Guard?
To start, my journey began when I was 18. I was a child during the recession. I come from a blue-collar family, manufacturing in the Rust Belt in Northeast Ohio. Service really began with my family, and I found that I really needed to forge a plan because I wasn’t going to be able to afford school.
I wasn’t going to be able to have as many opportunities just because things that were out of my control were limiting me. I started hitting the books, doing my research, figuring out what the best viable options were for me to go to school and be everything that I wanted to be. And the military came to me at a very opportune time.
I was researching. I just happened to come across a recruiter. I asked questions. I did my homework, and here I was, raising my right hand at 18, slightly after graduating high school. I was able to get into college, which was fantastic because we didn’t know if that was going to happen or not. I have learning disabilities.
We didn’t know if that was going to be an option for me, and I love proving people wrong with the, “I can. I will. Watch me.” And I always think of my daddy. He always used to say, “Be coy, and be calm.” And I always used to be brash and rash, and I was Bamm-Bamm from the Flintstones. I was just busting in rooms and making my voice heard.
So between research and being loud and proud, I found myself raising my right hand, enrolled in college. And I found myself with all of my school paid for in the Army National Guard out there in Ohio. I slowly got my footing. I went to training, and I can tell you that for anyone who’s been in the service or knows someone who’s been in the service, you go to basic training.
They break you down, and they build you back up. And I am a firm believer that they built me up 20 times stronger than I think they ever intended me to be. With that being said, I really hit the ground running. I found my calling in service. It completely transformed my education, from what degrees I was pursuing … I went from medical doctor to physical therapy to public health while pursuing another degree in Business and Entrepreneurship to starting a business.
What’s so interesting about my story is that I am, unfortunately, a statistic of military sexual trauma. And a lot of folks had expected me to not do … What’s the word I’m looking for? Some didn’t expect me to be as … an overachiever as I am or be as successful because that thing had happened to me. I just wrote an interesting piece about trauma to triumph for G.I. Jobs Magazine.
No matter the adversity, and the obstacles that come into our story, it’s just merely a chapter. It’s a sentence, and it’s only as much power as you allow it to have. My journey in the military, for a long story short, has been a whirlwind.
I have enjoyed training and inspiring soldiers, becoming a Sergeant, where I was able to participate in Best Warrior competitions and advocate on behalf of other women in uniform. This bizarre trajectory started at 18 and just ended its course in November of 2019 … I got out after eight years. So being a loud, proud woman veteran is just a part of my narrative.
It’s a part of who I am, and that’s something that I embrace. It’s been a wild ride, and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.
Gina: I’m almost double your age, or at least close to it, and the reason I say that is because you’ve only written the first chapter of your first book. I know that you have so much more to give and so many more chapters to write, as you will. And that’s one of the things that inspired me to interview you for Women’s History Month. Because this is about not just today, but the future, where we’re going to live, hopefully, in a world where gender is not marginalized.
Ashley: I concur. During my time in service, there were some that would challenge my leadership and authority, especially when I had a mission to carry out, and things to do, and places to be. It definitely had its challenges, but I was able to make my mark on a lot of young soldiers. It didn’t always necessarily happen from peer to peer, but the younger generation always saw what leadership looked like.
I was always committed to being the leader I needed when I was that young Private, that young soldier when things had happened to me when no one listened to me. I knew that I was in that position. I could be that voice. I can be that advocate, that leader, that teacher.
That’s what’s so important about Military Women’s History Month, or Women’s History Month in general, is we have amazing women in all industries and backgrounds, creed, race, religion, all of the above, that are doing amazing things and contributing to our communities. And one day, I just want it to be normalized. We see a lot of first of firsts. One day I want people to just be like, “Oh, that’s cool.” “Good for her. Good for him,” whatever the case may be.
If given the opportunity, people can go out and amaze you. I know that’s how I felt about my career. There were so many people, both men, and women, who are my allies and on my side, who would give me those opportunities.
They’d give me an inch, and I’d be able to take it a whole mile. They would just be impressed. That’s a very common thread and theme that we’re going to see continuing forward.
Gina: I’m going to throw a shout-out to my son’s girlfriend. I’m not going to name her by name, but she is planning to go to West Point, and she’s been accepted to West Point. I’m going to throw a shout-out to my son, who is hoping to serve our country, whether it’s through a military academy or through the ROTC. They’re both graduating seniors in a pandemic, and they’re just getting started on that journey. I’m going to be sure to make sure they listen to this and get to hear from a young, strong leader coming from a military background who is making a difference in this world.
How did you become an advocate for the military community and for veterans?
Fun story, as I mentioned a little bit in my military background, a lot of this is surrounded by education. And as I was pursuing my undergraduate degrees, I did all this research. I wanted to know my benefits, and I found myself walking into a community college’s veterans service office for a 15-minute super quick question, and I left with a job recommendation letter. They wanted to hire me. I was 19, 20 years old, and they said, “Wow, you know more about this program than I know about this program, and I’ve been doing this a while. I will write you a recommendation right here. We’re hiring.” And I ended up getting a position in a veteran program in a community college in Cleveland.
Shortly after, I found myself walking into the Veterans Service Center at my university. And they said, “Hey, you know your stuff. We like you. Would you like to be a V.A. work-study? Would you like to help us start an amazing first of first American Legion post on campus? Will you help us?” And I thought, “I don’t know. This is a lot right now.” This is like 2013, 2014. I had still been overcoming a lot of stuff. I was trying to get myself squared away. Next thing I know, I am thrust into all of these responsibilities, as one does and finds in the military or in life. I started this advocating journey through the American Legion, and the American Legion opened my eyes up to policy, to professionals, to community partners so devoted to our military community.
I was blown away. So here I am, 21, 20 years old. I am a Vice Commander for an inaugural post. I’m building a curriculum. Engage, educate, and employee. I’m fostering the collaboration of partners at a district, a regional, and a state level.
I’m getting people’s attention. People are asking, “How are you doing this? Can you tell me?” I’m helping people with benefits. I’m helping start a Student Veterans of America chapter on campus. We’re raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. We’re giving it back to the community.
We’re finding charities to sponsor. We’re doing all of this stuff. Here I am just like, “Yada, yada.” Just going to class and on my free time, just hard-charging it on this advocacy front. The thing that was odd is that I didn’t realize that these were the things that set my soul on fire. These are all the things that make me happy.
I wasn’t working a day in my life, whereas as I was figuring out this transformation of my degrees and education, I found that, “This isn’t really what I want to do.” There was just this weird timeline, this trajectory. The next big moment that really happens is I ended up throwing my name in for this internship out in Washington, D.C. This was about 2018.
I was just finishing up my Masters in Public Health. I was doing this huge strategic plan, and if the Department of Defense ever said, “Hey, we want to do this program, a TAP program, or Transition Assistance Program,” that we could maybe implement it on a state level and use state resources. So I’m thinking outside the box.
My public affairs, like Northeast Ohio Medical University … Shout out to them because I’m sure they were pulling their hair out with me. They were like, “What is she doing?” I end up getting this internship. I’m one of 25 in the country, fully paid. I get to come out to D.C., work with other high-speed veterans from all over the country, sponsored by Prudential, all these big folks.
I was swept up by the American Legion Education and Employment Division to work as an intern there. I was the second intern they’ve ever accepted to do any of these things. I was going to the Hill. I was meeting all these bigwigs. I was networking and doing all this stuff.
I was like, “Wow, I really know what I’m doing ….” You’re still fighting this imposter syndrome. And it was there that I had received from this mentorship, “Hey, you should start your own business.” “Hey, you should do all these things. You’re really good at these things,” right? So, I’m networking with the V.A. I’m networking with Student Veterans Organizations, all these people.
I’m sitting on a park bench in Lafayette Square, and that’s where I … on a napkin, similar to how the GI Bill was formulated in someone’s mind, written on a napkin at a hotel, I sat in Lafayette Square, and I literally wrote the pillars of what my business was going to be, and how it was going to be a pillar of how I can help transform the veterans’ community. After seeing all these inconsistencies or duplication in programs and communications and marketing. I thought, “There’s got to be a better way.”
I said, “I’m going to hit it from all angles. I’m going to try and work at the V.A.” I ended up getting offered a job to go work at the V.A. I couldn’t believe it. I am offered a job of my choosing, in a way. Like, “Come to us. Come, we see all the stuff you’re doing. Let’s do this.” Okay, check one box, awesome. This is going to be great.
I started my business. That was the other way. I was like, “Okay, that’s my private way of doing things.” I’ve got a public way, and then I’ve been working with nonprofits with the American Legion. So I was like, “I have this trifecta. I have a triangle of how I’m going to make a difference in these three pillars.”
My journey in advocacy came back down to my research, initially joining the military, which launched me into a career trajectory, a career path that I would never have actually thought. Here I am working six, seven years in higher education, running a metropolitan community college adjacent to the executive director and others, learning, sitting in with all these conversations. Here I am, also a student, and telling people what’s up. And that was a lot for some people. It’s a lot.
And then, it’s still the same, too, in my V.A. positions. I’m typically one of the younger, or I’m a post-9/11 vet. There are all these characteristics. This advocacy just built upon itself over the years. And now, I’m in a position where I am making the maximum amount of impact that I can. And it’s going to continue to grow. As you said, Gina, this is just my first chapter. This is my first go-around, so I’m excited to see what I can continue to do.
Gina: I listen to you, and I am in awe. Even when you just said … There’s some language that you use that I’m not necessarily familiar with layman’s terms, “post-9/11 vet.” I never thought of it that way because, for 9/11, I had a little baby at home. It’s why I started my company. I wasn’t going to be told I had to be at work when the world was blowing up. Literally, we were told we could not leave to go get our children while buildings were burning down, and I knew people in them. I said, “Oh, no, I will be leaving.” If it wasn’t that we had an 18-month-old daughter, my husband would have enlisted that day.
Ashley: It’s very common. A lot of people after 9/11 had their lives changed, just like the pandemic’s changing our lives. Folks are finally looking at public health like this is a national security issue … outside of the original events of 9/11.
Knowing a lot of folks who have served within those first few years, including my uncle, who never really has talked about his deployments. And me, as a non-deployed, non-combat veteran … Folks have always told me, “Oh, you’re lucky.”
I always tell people it’s like a lottery. Sometimes you just don’t know when your ticket’s going to be pulled, and if you’re on active duty, sometimes they pull a little bit quicker. But the thing is, Reserve and Guard units get deployed just as much, if not more, as support elements. There was a lot of nail-biting like, “Oh, this could happen.”
There were a lot of times where I thought the next year we were going to be on this new training cycle, and that’s when we were going to deploy. It didn’t happen, and some people tell me, “Oh, you’re lucky for that.” Sometimes folks out there who haven’t deployed have this deployed guilt like, “I don’t feel like I’m a full veteran because I haven’t done my part overseas.”
It’s interesting because you’re looking at 20 years of veterans who have been serving and a huge number of women who have been serving as well. I’ll have to think about that number and its integrity, but it’s significant. I want to say it’s over 700,000 women have served during post-9/11 war. That’s Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. That’s a lot of women.
Gina: These are the types of things people need to know. I was born in the middle of the Vietnam War, so my parents are Vietnam War kids. They were young, in their early 20s when they had me, and very much caught up in that. When we think about these stages in life and how the world has been defined, it has been defined by the wars we fought and continue to fight.
How has the role of women in the military has changed throughout history, and while you’ve been involved in the military?
If you look at the whole timeline, women have been serving since the Revolutionary War to present-day conflicts. Whether that’s Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Army, and now we have Space Force, women have served as pilots, nurses, engineers, soldiers, and other specialties.
Fun fact, women have always been an all-volunteer force. There’s no existing draft on women, so when women weren’t allowed to serve, they were serving anyway. They were disguising themselves as men, so to give everyone some insight, there have been women willing to step up since the formation of this country to protect this country, its values, and the privileges that it provides and gives us every day.
During World War One, there were about 35,000 women officially serving as nurses and support staff, not necessarily fully integrated or recognized. As soon as some of their service ends, that’s it. You see a little bit of that in World War II, and it wasn’t until June 12, 1948, when the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act was signed into law. That’s when President Truman determined that women were going to be, for the first time, recognized as full members of the military or Armed Forces in this regard.
There were many women participating in voluntary emergency services, like the WAVES, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service – a division of the U.S. Navy created during World War II to free up male personnel for sea duty.
FACT: June 12 is designated as Women Veterans Day. The first Women Veterans Day was held June 12, 2018, marking the 70th anniversary of the groundbreaking Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, signed into law by President Harry S. Truman on June 12, 1948.
One of the things I was working on when I was living in Ohio is, I provided proponent testimony for Women’s Veterans Day in Ohio. It did pass. It went through, and 2020 would have been the first year that they would have recognized it as a state, unfortunately, with COVID and the pandemic, it didn’t pan out.
Gina: Before we started recording the podcast, I asked you if you knew Patrick Murphy. He was the 33rd United States Under Secretary of the Army and the first veteran of the Iraq War to be elected to the United States House of Representatives, representing Pennsylvania’s 8th congressional district from 2007 to 2011. He’s also a veteran affairs advocate. We need to get Patrick on making sure, if we don’t have it, that Pennsylvania, June 12, has Women’s Veterans Day. And I will be behind that a hundred percent.
Ashley: That’s too funny. I love it. I’ve been very blessed. I am pursuing a second Masters in Public Leadership at the University of San Francisco through the Veterans Campaign because one day, I’d like to see myself in politics. I’ve been very fortunate, and I know we were discussing this prior to the start, but the Honorable Patrick Murphy is my instructor for this class that I just finished up. It’s been phenomenal to listen and learn from him. He’s a very humble man. He demonstrates the landscape of the last 20 years and how more veterans, and also women veterans, are getting into Congress. I’ll digress just a bit because, from Persian Gulf War in 1991, there were about 40,000 women who deployed in combat zones. If you speed up the timeline, I joined in 2011, and then the first women who went to Ranger school, and the first openings to didn’t until about 2015. So still, at that point, we had not accepted the notion that women were returning fire or in combat jobs. There are some women who know all too well, who would be like, “Pish posh, that’s ridiculous, unheard of. I have definitely done all of these things,” but they weren’t necessarily recognized because of stuff. It’s a wild notion to think about because I know way too many women in the service who have been crushing and breaking glass ceilings. Until this point, I am just always astonished that I’m thinking, “Wow, I’m going to be 28 this year, and the Women’s Military Memorial, the only major memorial that honors all women who’ve served, was established when I was 26.”
We’re still making this wayward progress. Women are projected to make up 18 percent of the veteran population by 2040. Thirty thousand women are leaving the military every year. It’s time for folks to recognize and realize that we’re here and we are doing these things.
I just shared a story earlier about a Navy helmsman. These are women who were 18, 19 years old controlling huge ships. These are insane things to think about, someone so young and as a woman, right? Because men do it. Women do it. One day, they’re just like, “Yeah, we all do it, doesn’t matter.” It’s so interesting because, in the past decade, women veteran disparities in services compared to male counterparts have differed significantly. We’ve made a lot of progress. I’m not going to argue that. We’ve made progress. Is there more work to do?
Gina: I was listening to one of your podcasts for Tango Alpha Lima, and I appreciated the story of Retired Admiral Cecil Haney. I bring that up because he was the first Black four-star admiral in Naval history. As we’re talking about how little has really moved in terms of integration of all ethnic and gender backgrounds, he’s only 65. You shared the story about racism in the military system.
What are some of the things that you’d like to see change as it relates to diversity, equity, inclusion in the military, whether it relates to women, race, gender identity, or any of those issues?
There are some things being done, including a task force specifically looking at. I’m pretty sure we covered this on one of the Tango Alpha Lima podcasts as well. For example, hair restrictions and authorized hairstyles are changing. They’re looking at the language.
I remember having soldiers who had issues with that, or they would get knocked on by older generation peers, or Sergeants or folks. They’d say, “Oh, your hair’s out of reg.” I’m just happy to see that we’re doing something about it.
We are looking at how our promotion boards are being evaluated. We’re looking at our combat readiness. There are so many different things that are happening right now that time will tell. If there’s anything the military has always been super progressive about, it’s doing stuff before stuff was trending.
The military has usually done a decent job in doing that. Have they always done the best possible way in policy? Probably not, but they’re making improvements, and I’m excited to see that.
In Cecil’s case, only being in his early 60s, to be encouraging and showcasing his story is powerful. It needs to be there to remind folks that things can change in a generation. Things can change in a decade. We have to continuously keep pushing forward. Being inclusive and diverse is really where our country must go, and demographics speak for themselves.
Gina: I commend you for speaking up. I can’t imagine that it’s easy in the military to speak up and speak out. As you mentioned, there were times that as a woman, or a younger woman, that people had to listen to your orders and didn’t always like it. I like it.
Ashley: It’s a balance, Gina. A lot of folks during my career expected … Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness kind of thing. I dressed right, did all my paperwork, did the research. I was very much so an innate teacher. I wanted my soldiers to be involved, and that leading by example built a lot of respect. It was only folks that were resistant to the change who would give me issues. And that’s okay because after a while when you become an empathetic leader, you understand why some people are adverse, or they’re hesitant for that change. Being able to then have a conversation, maybe not always light and friendly conversation, but a hard conversation is an asset. Sometimes you’ve got to be tough and have a zero-tolerance policy. In my group that I had, that I trained, if I even heard about harassment, you’re done. You’re doing pushups, all of those things.
Did you ever feel that you had to work harder than your male counterparts?
Every day. You always have to be at the top of your game because everyone’s watching. At one point, middle of my career, I was a young Sergeant. There were only a handful of women that were lower enlisted or of enlisted non-commission officer rank. There were very few of us, so we were the ones setting the example. It was like, if I’m doing the wrong thing if I’m relaxing, or if I’m just being too buddy buddy, then other people believe that’s okay. And the thing was, being a woman in the military, especially because I’m military police, I had a more male to female ratio. That’s changing now. You always had to be self-aware of what you were saying, how you were acting. You needed to just be on point. You’ve got to know your stuff because if I messed up, they would just assume that all the other women will probably do that too.
You published an article just yesterday about Women’s Military History and Why it Matters. You shared the experience that you had while visiting the Women’s Military Memorial. Can you briefly share that story?
I did not know that there is a memorial and education center dedicated to military women until about 2018. This happened in the most peculiar way. I literally stumbled right into it, like walking into a wall. I was at Arlington National Cemetery, and for most folks who have ever visited, you come upon this huge semi-circle, this giant structure right before they push you off into security to park where you’re supposed to. That’s the Women’s Military Memorial, formerly known as the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. It is the only national at-large place where the preservation of women’s stories, and the stories in just general, are archived, preserved. It’s amazing. They’ve only been able to capture about 290,000 where there are 2.7 million women out there who still have not registered their stories. I found myself, “Oh, that’s an interesting sign. I’m a woman service- ” I’m still a service member at this time. I go in. I’m blown away. I thought, “Why didn’t I know this existed?” I struck up a cause to bring awareness to this organization, this nonprofit, and it’s been just an absolute blessing. Of course, I pretty much walked right into it. And for a second, I thought, “Oh, I’m still a service member. I’m not a veteran. Maybe this isn’t for me.” Not the case at all. It is for all women who have served. You walk in, and it’s just breathtaking. It’s like, “Wow, this is for me.” I didn’t think anyone was paying attention to my service. I’m registered with the memorial because one day, I want my kids and my great-grandchildren to be like, “Hey, look, there’s your grams. She’s pretty B.A.” Like, “She’s cool. She’s awesome.” That’s so important.
FACT: More than 3 million women have served our country, and only 290,000 stories had been collected. That means 2.7 million women veterans haven’t shared their stories.
What organizations and resources can our listeners turn to for more information about the history of women in the military?
The Military Women’s Memorial has a new website. You can register your story there. There are military history projects. You can get in touch with any of your veterans’ service organizations. Typically, they have a historian, either at a post level, a district level, or a state level. They love to hear your stories. They’re always looking for amazing women veterans and their speakers. I’m always going to plug the V.A. because when you go to www.VA.gov, you’re going to find so many resources there. Check out Women Veterans Health Care.
Gina: There are a lot of behavioral health organizations that work with Veterans Affairs. We have a client called New Vitae Wellness and Recovery in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and they have a whole division addressing veterans’ needs. I encourage people to look locally too.
Final question. Do you have a book or a podcast recommendation for our audience?
If you really want to learn more about women veterans from your very beginnings of rank all the way up to generals, to first of firsts, to glass ceiling smashers, the Women in Military podcast. A dear friend of mine, Amanda Huffman, runs that. She’s been at it for a while, and I’m telling you, she is amazing. She is an Air Force Veteran, a mother. She was an engineer. She was an officer overseas, and she knows what’s up. She captures amazing stories. She’s interviewing generals. She interviewed the Military Women’s Memorial President Emeritus, who’s going to be, I think, 91 or 92 this year.
Gina: I want an introduction so I can interview her. We are On Record PR, and so that’s a great P.R. plug for that, but it’s out of integrity. I share that because one of the things that I like to tie things together with is to say that advocacy is public relations. This is why a podcast like On Record PR, talking about public relations, what we’re doing out there in public… That is what we do. It’s about advocacy. You are doing that every day. I am grateful, I know just as a layperson, but with members of my family who are both veterans and soon-to-be military, so thank you for what you do.
Ashley, where can our listeners learn more about you and get in touch?
I love LinkedIn. You can find me on LinkedIn. I promise you I’m the only one with my long monster name. LinkedIn. You can also find my bios between the American Legion and GuideOnEducation.com.
Gina: This is only your first chapter, so I can’t wait to see all the great things that come from you. I’m already connected with you on LinkedIn. You’ll be getting a friend invite on Facebook very soon. This interview was with Ashley Gorbulja-Maldonado, who has been our wonderful guest, and this is Gina Rubel. We’re signing off.
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