By Karla Langham

As a military spouse, we often put our careers on hold, press pause on finishing our education, and take time to support our spouse’s military career. We endure comments about our dependence on our servicemember and are regularly referred to as “just” a military spouse. We are told to suck it up, that we “signed up” for this, and for that reason it is completely our fault that we did not take the proper amount of time to read the fine print. There are no takebacks and there is definitely no whining.

The aforementioned is mostly true, with the exception of the “no whining.” When it comes to the lack of upward mobility in the careers of military spouses, there is definitely whining. The reality, however, is that I would not trade my experiences for any other.

My path as a military spouse has brought me through numerous entry level career paths and has led me to where I am today: a congressional staffer. It took a year and a half of living in our current duty station, to convince someone to take a chance on hiring me. When I am asked how I was able secure a position in Congress, my response is, “I have no idea. It was purely an accident;” but a happy accident that has been a continual learning curve ever since.

During my first few weeks as a Congressional staffer, I repeatedly heard the phrase “This job is like drinking from a fire hose.” I was bombarded with information every moment of every day. Learning about the district’s issues, stakeholders, friends and foes, and how to address adversity—it was overwhelming, but no different than my life as a military spouse. I was juggling issues, addressing competing needs, and working within the parameters of government entities and policies. I learned quickly that the only way to fully grasp how to do your job, is to learn-by-fire.

Luckily, I was born and bred of the “learn-by-fire” method, which proved useful the first few months of starting my job, but then came 2020. Five months into my amazing “happy accident” job, everything came to a screeching halt. COVID-19 lockdowns commenced, and I was left wondering: How would I learn-by-fire, if there was no actual fire? How would I meet others, build relationships, or grow myself professionally? I was just another face in a sea of Zoom conference calls, and I was struggling to make meaningful professional relationships. In my frustration, I vented to a friend, who introduced me to another friend, and that friend introduced me to HillVets.

When I was introduced to HillVets they had just begun their application process for the HillVets LEAD Program. I initially was hesitant to apply since I am not a veteran and just a spouse. Additionally, HillVets had only previously offered the program to those living and working in the greater Washington, DC, area. While contemplating the application process, I was invited to watch a live broadcast of HillVets LEAD Alumni discussing their experiences with the program. Among those speaking was a military spouse, who encouraged other spouses to apply. Hearing that helped calm my nerves and motivated me to submit my application.  Additionally, the HillVets team announced they would be offering the program virtually, due to the pandemic. This was even more exciting; I would get to participate from San Diego, CA.

The HillVets LEAD Program was exactly what I needed. It was a safe space to ask questions about leadership, share stories, and learn from my peers within the veteran and military community. Our cohort of protégés was able to work collaboratively on a project, pool our networks, and execute our panel for HillVets CAPCON, a leadership and policy forum that culminated the program. Through HillVets, I met people that I otherwise would have never met—which is one of my favorite experiences of the program being virtual. HillVets speakers were always impressive; they were honest and authentic. They spent their evenings speaking on their leadership experiences in D.C. and wholeheartedly believed in building allyship among veterans and veteran advocates. I walked away from the HillVets LEAD Program with lifelong friendships, mentors, invaluable tools to use on the job, and a literal home to walk into should I ever make it to the HillVets House in Washington, D.C.

HillVets has taken the time to build meaningful partnerships with senior policy experts and make them accessible to those who seek to build their skills and grow their careers. I entered the HillVets LEAD program feeling that my experiences as “just” a military spouse would not be welcomed. Instead, I fostered lifelong professional friendships, found the mentorship I was lacking, was able to build on my career and plan next steps. I would encourage anyone working in veteran programs or policy to apply to the HillVets LEAD Program and to take advantage of the program being offered virtually.