Kayla Williams, a former Army Specialist who has written about her experiences in Iraq, has penned an engrossing new memoir about her journey once home: realizing her identity as a female veteran as well as navigating the complexities of love after she falls for Brian, a fellow soldier who suffers a devastating brain injury after his convoy hits an IED. Williams’ honesty and openness in Plenty of Time When We Get Home not only compels readers to listen, but also helps shed new light on the after-effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I asked Williams, via email, about her transition, her identity (or identities), and her process in writing this latest book.
Can you describe your process in creating this memoir, as you reflected both on your own challenges and Brian’s struggles? Did you find it cathartic?
I cut back to half time at work and was ruthless about protecting my time—didn’t even log on to my professional email on book days to avoid getting sucked in. That was terribly important in terms of process, just protecting the mental space for writing. I re-read all my journals to bring back the emotions from earlier years, reviewed every page of Brian’s medical records. I also interviewed people who were on the bus when it got hit, Brian’s neurosurgeon and neuropsychiatrist, and some of our friends, both to learn about events he couldn’t remember and to check my own recollections since research shows memory can be quite fallible. Zoe [my best friend and fellow soldier] and I took a trip to Nashville together and drove up to Ft. Campbell to see where we used to live and work.
I had a solid outline, so I knew in advance what the structure would be. That was helpful when a particular issue was difficult to work through; I could just move to a different chapter or section until I was ready to revisit it. But overall it wasn’t anything like my first book Love My Rifle More Than You—that one was written so soon after I came back from the war, my head was still completely stuck in Iraq and getting the story out really was an act of catharsis. For this one, I waited a lot longer, which gave me more perspective and balance. If I’d tried to write it five years ago, I still would’ve been angry and hurt and confused. The extra time helped me develop more empathy for both Brian and myself, and see the different stages of his recovery more clearly.
You write about returning from Iraq and finding that civilians “didn’t understand, didn’t think about the fact that women were in the Army too, didn’t think of us at war, didn’t step beyond their automatic assumptions and stereotypes to recognize our service and sacrifice.” You conclude, “We were invisible.” What did that mean for you? How did it affect your transition? Years later, when you saw a child’s classroom drawing of a smiling female soldier (quite a moving scene), did you feel a change?
At the time, I didn’t understand what was happening—I was just feeling everything, not thinking about anything. And since so many people around me were struggling with reintegration, it didn’t occur to me that being invisible as a woman soldier could be exacerbating the transition. That moment when I saw the little girl’s drawing was actually when that the realization hit me that there was something different about being a woman veteran in a society that didn’t recognize our experiences—which is, now that I think about it, an interesting parallel to the moment in Paris when I realized I am a veteran or the moment when Lee Woodruff’s words made me realize I was a caregiver. Apparently it often takes an outside stimulus for me to recognize my own situation.
Your sense of identity finds another sea change when, while helping Brian cope in his own transition, doctors, case managers and others see you as a military spouse and essentially ignore your status as a veteran. Was there a sense that there was no happy medium? How did you reconcile your roles as veteran, wife, caregiver?
Reconciling—or perhaps integrating?—different facets of identity is an ongoing challenge. When I was in grad school, one of our professors made us write down three words to describe ourselves, and it fascinated me to see what people chose. Quite a few women wrote “woman,” but not a single man chose “man.” That aspect of their identity was invisible: the privilege of power? Some people wrote “vegetarian” and, though I don’t eat meat, that never occurred to me as a choice; it isn’t at all what I consider a fundamental aspect of myself. “Veteran” was the absolute first thing I wrote down, it had become such a core part of who I am. “Caregiver” was the second; it wasn’t long after I saw the Woodruff interview. And the third was “newly middle class,” since that encapsulated for me how hard I’d worked to reach that status after growing up poor. Today, “mother” and “author” might replace the second two.
But feeling that all the various aspects of who I am are recognized and acknowledged, even by myself, can still be a challenge. It’s easy for one facet to dominate, especially since in so many settings only one is seen by others: at work, I’m an employee; at the kids’ day care, I’m a mom; and so forth. Any time of change can feel threatening and destabilizing: one identity is being shed or another gained, so am I still the same person? Is there some core that remains? So that period of transitioning from soldier to civilian, from sergeant to spouse, definitely led to feelings of insecurity and anxiety.
In the book, as you and Brian travel in Europe, you note that European citizens face their military history every day, that “it remained an intimate part of their landscape.” It is here that you realize your experience as a veteran. Can you describe that moment?
We’d noticed the scars of war in many of the places we visited, like damaged murals in Pisa, with plaques explaining they were from shelling. Then in Paris, we were walking through a WWII exhibit at a museum and I was struck by how their equipment was so similar to ours. The canteen is the same shape, though the material it’s made from has changed, the canteen cup looks identical; helmets are the same basic shape, though now they’re Kevlar instead of metal. Even though the theaters weren’t the same, it suddenly—powerfully—struck me that I had something in common with those soldiers. Before that moment, I’d just felt like some woman who happened to have gone to war. In that museum was the moment I realized I was a veteran, that I shared something profound with millions of others who had gone before me and, sadly, untold others who will follow. It was comforting somehow to find that kinship, though also terribly humbling to read the numbers of dead from WWII and acknowledge the unfathomably horrific scale of suffering from that era.
Your advocacy for female veterans is inspiring and certainly another form of service. What lessons have you learned from those opportunities?
More than I expected! I’ve learned that it is possible to make a difference, that telling one’s story can lead to concrete change. I’ve learned the importance of moderation and calibration—that incremental change can be a vital point of systematic change, and extremists on both sides of an issue open a necessary space in the middle for reasonable people to make progress. I’ve learned how to speak (relatively) calmly and articulately about difficult topics, and that showing the right amount of emotion (passion, vulnerability, even anger) can let people connect with you more than dry facts alone can. I’ve learned that my ability to connect facts and stories—to illustrate data with anecdote or to contextualize personal experience with statistics—is somewhat uncommon, and that being able to occupy the middle ground between grand vision and minutia is a blessing, not a curse. I’ve learned that while I can juggle lots of responsibilities and still do relatively well, if I don’t engage in adequate self-care, it all falls apart. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned the importance of community, service and purpose as components of healing and wholeness.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed.
Update: we have a giveaway winner, so the form is now closed.
Thanks all for reading!
Audible has generously offered a free download of Plenty of Time When We Get Home to ONE lucky Avenue Varietal reader! Fill out the form below–the first reader response received (as determined by receipt of the WordPress notification email) wins! Thanks Audible and Kayla Williams!