These veterans might be out of uniform, but their mission continues
As the United States turns away from a generation of war, a great struggle remains.
Millions are living with wounds, physical and invisible, sustained in service to the nation — injuries not only due to the harsh realities of combat but also the result of exploitation, discrimination, demonization and negligence.
Successive administrations and Congress have struggled to correct some of these ills. But closer to the ground, countless veterans also are working on issues they experienced themselves, so that future generations of service members don’t endure the oftentimes avoidable harms that can haunt individuals for years and weaken the military.
To mark this Veterans Day, The Washington Post profiled several of those fighting the next fight to fix the problems they encountered while serving. Their experience sheds light on the breadth of challenges affecting the active-duty and veteran communities. And while this selection of individuals is far from exhaustive, each is illustrative of the call to service, the drive to do good and right wrongs, that many continue to feel even after their military careers come to an end.
Crystal Ellington was working as a helicopter mechanic at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state when, in 2019, she was sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier. The trauma and indignities that followed led her to become an advocate for other women and minorities who’ve faced injustices or hardships in connection with their military service.
Ellington, who is Black and queer, was the only woman in her unit when the assault happened. She chose to report the incident informally, hoping to avoid retaliation by not naming her perpetrator, whom she describes as a charismatic and well-connected soldier who outranked her. But their commander, Ellington says, mishandled the situation by asking her to reveal her attacker’s identity. She called it “retraumatizing.”
Ellington began experiencing panic attacks, and performing her duties became more difficult. And even though she was assigned a committed victim advocate, she says, “I didn’t feel like I had much recourse, and I didn’t feel like I had anywhere to go.”
Now, as communications director for Minority Veterans of America, Ellington is working to change not only how the military prosecutes sex assaults - a divisive topic in Congress, where lawmakers are debating moving such cases outside the chain of command - but also how commanders acknowledge victims.
Ellington is particularly focused on urging the Pentagon to adopt the clinical definition of “military sexual trauma” in use within the Department of Veterans Affairs. That, she argues, is the only way the military can address the extensive and often hidden fallout that can follow an assault and ensure that victims aren’t pilloried while in recovery.
“I don’t think people really understand military sexual trauma as it relates to how you move throughout the world,” Ellington says. “Just because you can’t see someone’s disability doesn’t make it any less valid.”
In the years after his discharge from the Army, Iraq War veteran Kristofer Goldsmith experienced homelessness, unemployment, alcohol addiction and social isolation. He attempted suicide. Such darkness, Goldsmith later realized, can leave veterans vulnerable to radicalization from anti-government groups promising fraternity around a shared embrace of extremist beliefs.
While managing the social media accounts for Vietnam Veterans of America, an advocacy group, Goldsmith discovered a copycat page on Facebook. Before long, he had unearthed multiple sites targeting veterans specifically with divisive and what he saw as dangerous propaganda. He wanted to fight back.
Last year, amid a fractious and polarizing presidential contest, Goldsmith and a friend set out to infiltrate a leading white-nationalist group online. They publicly exposed its members’ hateful rhetoric and outed their leader to his neighbors, disrupting the group’s activities just before the 2020 election and forcing the extremists to go underground for a time.
Next, he wormed his way into a group circulating conspiracy claims about the election and actively recruiting veterans to join their cause. After the Jan. 6 insurrection, Goldsmith was devastated and decided to turn his knowledge of how extremist groups function into a consultancy business. He’s also writing a book intended to be a how-to manual for other veterans to help take down hate groups from the inside.
Goldsmith wants such organizations to become too paranoid to seek out veterans - an attractive target, he says, because of their experience recruiting, organizing and fighting, and their influence with other veterans. He is advocating for the Pentagon and VA to focus on becoming more attuned to extremist tendencies or sympathies in potential military recruits and among those currently in uniform, and more forthcoming with resources that can help veterans avoid falling prey.
Goldsmith believes veterans can find a “sense of purpose,” as he did, in mobilizing against domestic extremists - the vast majority of whom “are not veterans,” he says. His aim is to make it “so that civilians who are involved in these movements no longer trust veterans - so that they no longer consider veterans an asset, and instead view them as a liability.”
Chelsey Simoni remembers the day in 2014 when the man who would become her husband, fellow veteran Kyle Simoni, told her that many people he had been to war with had died of rare forms of respiratory disease and cancer in just the few years since their return from Iraq.
Simoni, now 31, was in the process then of leaving the military - she had been a medical specialist before suffering a career-ending injury - and had enrolled in nursing school. Today she leads a foundation dedicated to researching toxic exposure in the military and educating medical professionals about how to spot rare conditions in those who have served. She named the organization the HunterSeven Foundation, a nod to her husband’s sergeant major, who died of a rare form of bile duct cancer.
Public discourse surrounding toxic exposure, and the military’s responsibility to minimize it and care for those who have suffered from it, is most commonly focused on burn pits - massive open-air fires used to burn the military’s trash at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. But according to Simoni’s research, most veterans who have suffered serious or fatal conditions due to toxic exposure never set foot anywhere near a burn pit, and she wants more suffering veterans to be acknowledged as part of the military’s problem.
“Statistically, we’ve seen a lot more veterans become sick and ill that weren’t around burn pits,” Simoni said. “That’s the problem with burn pits: It provides a false secure of security. Because if we restrict the problem to specifically burn pits, people are going to say: ‘I was never around burn pits. I’m fine.’”
Simoni’s organization has published a comprehensive review of the impact of toxic exposure on veterans of the Iraq War and is planning to follow that next month by releasing a similar study focused on Afghanistan. She hopes the research helps to educate medical professionals and encourage them to probe deeper when veterans present with certain ailments, so that serious symptoms of combat-environment toxic exposure aren’t misdiagnosed.
Her mission is personal. Kyle, 34, suffers from severe issues with his liver and thyroid and a sleep disorder, conditions they believe to be connected to his service. “We don’t even know if we can have children because of his exposures,” she says. “This is our future.”
It had become a familiar pattern: A service member who wasn’t yet a U.S. citizen would encounter immigration enforcement, become entangled in a frightening bureaucratic mess involving multiple federal agencies until finally - in an act of desperation — they would seek the help of Margaret Stock.
Stock, a retired Army Reserve officer and civilian immigration attorney, became more and more disturbed by the trend, particularly as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had exposed the Pentagon’s lack of expertise in the languages and cultural sensitivities unique to those parts of the world. For centuries, she thought, the U.S. military has leveraged immigrants in times of conflict, putting them on paths to citizenship while benefiting from their skills - such as translating enemy documents and interpreting transmissions sent in their native tongues. But after 9/11, the leadership appeared blind to these potential assets thanks to a broken immigration system and regulations that at the time barred enlistment without a green card.
“It seemed crazy,” she says. “Our national leadership didn’t use the asset we have.”
By 2009, Stock implemented a Defense Department-wide program designed to attract military recruits with badly needed language, cultural and medical skills. It was designed to trade them fast-tracked naturalization in exchange for their service. More than 10,000 troops joined the ranks through her initiative.
The Pentagon mismanaged the program, though, often placing these personnel in jobs that didn’t take full advantage of their specialization. Later, concerns among senior defense officials that the program could be exploited by U.S. adversaries led to its closing in 2016. Stock had retired, but suddenly she was flooded once more with messages from frantic recruits still in the pipeline who suddenly faced dismissal and, for some, deportation.
In the years since, she has offered legal advice and guidance on how to navigate the military enlistment process to hundreds of immigrants, helping many successfully reach their units and naturalize. Today, her workload is on the rise again, as tens of thousands of Afghans - American allies and their families - have arrived in the United States following the chaotic withdrawal from 20 years of war in late August.
“The U.S. government doesn’t have the institutional memory to figure this out,” says Stock, who has quietly helped some government officials find their footing, including with seminars intended to explain the nuances of U.S. immigration law.
The emails, she says, never stop coming.
It was a late summer day in Tacoma, Wash., in 2013, when Michael Washington finished a meal at his favorite seafood joint, walked to the East 34th Street Bridge and scoped out the best spot to jump. As the cool wind whipped around him, the retired Marine turned firefighter contemplated how he had reached this point.
A veteran of several combat deployments, Washington watched his son — also named Michael — follow him into the Marine Corps and deploy to Afghanistan in 2008. The father returned from war alive. The son did not. And five unbearable years later, he readied himself on the bridge’s edge and leaned forward, like a swimmer on a diving platform.
Washington, 59, says that if not for the memory of his son and what he believes was a spiritual intervention urging him to step away, he would have taken his life in that moment of despair. Instead, he walked away, found help and eventually learned to see that in his tragedy there was opportunity.
Washington became a psychotherapist specializing in trauma among military personnel, veterans and first responders. He says that what he lacked, what drew him to the bridge that day, is what probably saved his life.
“If I had access to a gun, there’s no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be here,” Washington says. Time, he believes, is what he needed to come back from the edge, and no suicide method is as fast or as fatal as a firearm.
Veterans own guns at higher rates than other U.S. adults do, and they use them to die by suicide far more routinely, according to federal health data, underscoring the issue’s urgency.
Washington and others say more-secure gun storage may add precious seconds to a fateful decision, enough time to convince someone in distress to stop and seek help. Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control group for which Washington sits on the veterans advisory board, also has pushed for laws that could help family members or law enforcement temporarily take possession of firearms when loved ones are in crisis.
Gun access can be a thorny topic for veterans, Washington acknowledges. But conversations with family and friends — having a plan, he says — can be a deciding factor in whether a veteran survives an emergency.
“Talking about it. That’s how you do it,” he says.
Deirdre Hendrick came out as transgender in 2016. They had been in uniform almost 30 years at that point, on active duty and in the reserves, but initially Hendrick chose to inform only civilian colleagues. Sharing this with fellow soldiers, Hendrick worried, carried too great a risk of discrimination, even though the Pentagon had ended its prohibition on transgender personnel serving openly.
For a time, Hendrick presented as female in one job (as a civilian auditor for Army Cyber Command) and male in another (as a lawyer in the Army Reserve), delicate day-to-day footwork made more onerous with both positions based at Fort Meade in Maryland. That changed in 2017, when Hendrick came out to military colleagues, too. But soon thereafter, the Trump administration reversed the Pentagon’s policy, causing upheaval for thousands of transgender service members in the process of transitioning or considering whether to do so.
Hendrick faced an onslaught of requests for help from service members struggling to understand their options - work that continues today, nearly two years after retiring from the military. The Biden administration reinstated the policy allowing transgender troops to serve openly, but there have been problems with its implementation, Hendrick says. Most issues occur because military commanders, finding themselves in unfamiliar territory, delegate to their subordinates the responsibility for approving troops’ plans for gender transition, Hendrick says.
“That’s way too many people knowing all that personal information,” Hendrick says. “Many commanders are very good about it, but other times, other people try to get their hands in there.”
Helping transitioning service members navigate the system has allowed Hendrick to see its flaws. The military has no accommodation, for example, for nonbinary personnel. Still, Hendrick is hopeful that recent changes - such as the Army adopting a gender-neutral fitness test - will help make the military’s perennial struggle with issues of gender and sexuality recede.
“I’m sure there will be discrimination against trans and queer people for a long time to come,” Hendrick said. “But the more opportunities we’re given to show that we can perform well, the less it would become.”
Martin Johnson had a tough time adjusting to military life, racking up minor infractions and the punishments that came as a result. The hard landing was a wake-up call to work harder, and a deployment to Iraq seemed like the opportunity to prove his worth.
It was a week into his tour as an F-16 crew chief when a car bomb exploded outside his base, rattling Johnson’s bones, leaving him hypervigilant and anxious. The relief he expected upon returning home was short-lived when Johnson’s marriage collapsed.
“I was so broken, I didn’t know my left from my right,” he says.
Infractions piled up again, sometimes for offenses such as failing to mow his lawn to military standards. The Air Force kicked him out in 2009 with a general discharge under honorable conditions, which allows veterans access to some benefits but prohibits use of others, including GI Bill educational stipends.
Along with other punitive discharges, advocates say, such discharges can stigmatize veterans in their next chapters of life. Johnson, who has tumbled from job to job in the years since his separation from the military, was eventually diagnosed with major depressive disorder, social anxiety and post-traumatic stress, he says. His request for a discharge upgrade was rejected.
Now, Johnson is the reluctant face of a lawsuit against the Air Force, joining a fellow veteran in accusing the service of sidestepping regulations that require consideration of mental health injuries and their role in misconduct. The Air Force has declined to comment on the litigation. The suit, filed in September by the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic, seeks a sweeping review of theirs and other veterans’ discharge-upgrade denials and improvements to the review process. Thousands of veterans could be eligible to join the case, according to the legal clinic, which has secured victories in similar lawsuits brought against the Army and the Navy.
Johnson says he only recently sought mental health support, having overcome the embarrassment of his discharge and navigated the confusing spaces between honorable service and everything else. “I’m not doing this for myself. This is for people who don’t know who to talk to, who need the help.”