BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Jodie Grenier began her career in the United States Marine Corps serving with the 1st Marine Division, G-2. [G-2 refers to military intelligence staff.] She was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom I and II as an Intelligence Collections and Watch Chief and was honored with the Navy Commendation, Navy Achievement, Global War on Terrorism Service, and Iraq Campaign Medals. Jodie was honorably discharged from active service (2005) and promoted to Staff Sergeant in the Reserves (2006).
Currently, Jodie Grenier leads Foundation for Women Warriors, a nonprofit that serves the four biggest needs of women veterans: education, housing, employment, and childcare.
Jodie spoke with impactmania about what she learned on contract for the U.S. State Department and while serving as a Marine in the United States Marine Corps, Department of Defense in Iraq. She also shares one of the misconceptions that civilians have of veterans.
Jodie, what do women face after they serve our country?
From personal experience, I can tell you that what you actually experience are things that can’t necessarily be measured — your loss of identity and loss of community.
A lot of these women enlist in the service after high school, and some of them might not have had jobs prior. They are not necessarily prepared to write a resume or go on job interviews. Even though you have proven results in the military, you’ve never had to interview for your job in the military. You go to boot camp, train in a specific job field and you do it to the best of your ability. And you have an entire team that supports you.
In addition, some of the things that you learn in the military do not receive civilian credentials.
Give me an example?
You can be a medic in the military and worked in the emergency room. While you have proven medical results, such as providing a tourniquet and keeping someone from bleeding out and saving someone’s life. After you leave service, in some cases you can’t even go work in a convalescent home and assist someone with a bath.
Another example would be truck drivers or mechanics. They serve abroad or even within the states. When they get out, they don’t have a CDL [Commercial Drivers License] or big rig license. Some states have moved to change this but not all.
That can be frustrating, especially when you’re in charge of millions of dollars of equipment or in charge of a team of anywhere between 20 to 180 personnel. Then when you get out, someone’s offering you $12 to $15 an hour job even though your experience probably trumps his or hers.
Give me an example of a woman’s life that the Foundation for Women Warriors has helped.
The systems that we have, whether it’s the Department of Veterans Affairs or different government agencies, are so bureaucratic. You have to hit rock bottom before you can receive help as a veteran; 15 percent of veterans, after they hit rock bottom, are able to receive some sort of service from the government. The other 85 percent, because maybe they are receiving unemployment or they hit a maximum of income, they’re not able to elevate themselves because they don’t qualify for programs.
One of our veterans, a single parent, has three children, and wasn’t receiving child support. She was working and going for a graduate degree at the University of San Diego.
She became unemployed and said to us, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to quit school.” She was trying to advance her education, but she was struggling to find work. We met her with some financial assistance to ensure that she could maintain housing for herself and her children. We also provided her with partner agency we worked closely with to edit her resume — highlighting the skills she was learning at graduate school —and prepared her for interviews.
Within three-month, she maintained her housing and received a job with CareFusion. She said, “Jodie, I could’ve been out on the streets with my children if your organization didn’t exist. And then you also helped me find someone who had access to jobs, people, and a network. I’m not just starting a job, I’m starting my career.” She graduates this December, with a Master’s in Global Leadership.
Congratulations, that’s wonderful.
We’re not giving handouts; we’re giving hand-ups. We make investments in our women; because these are women have proven success in the military. A lot of them come from families that don’t necessarily have the social network or social status to connect them with jobs that fulfill their passion. A lot of them have families that work a job to live rather than to thrive. I look at each case individually and say, “What’s the impact?” The impact here is that her family found financial stability and family stability.
She’s now on a board for an organization that helps young women in her area. That’s a metric that we try to capture as well. How many of these women are giving back to their community via community service?
What kind of resources do women veterans have in general that help them transition back to civilian lives?
Nationally, there are a couple other organizations that focus on woman veterans but they’re more focused towards homelessness: women on the street or those that are couch surfing. Our organization is pretty unique and we’re the only organization that serves solely women veterans in California. The resource and referral is national. Anyone can call us and we will provide them with connection to our partner agencies in other areas, and then everything else we do is solely in Southern California.
What kinds of tools do you use to help women veterans? You were talking a bit about creating a network, how did that come into existence?
I think being a veteran myself has definitely helped me anticipate the needs of the community.
Veterans in general tend to isolate themselves. They think only other veterans understand them, that creates group-think and not a whole lot of access to dissent or people that can empower you in different ways.
One of the things that I’ve done is I’ve brought in veterans that have helped in the past to some of my meetings with new veterans. That has proven successful, especially for women that are transitioning who are single parents. Because then they can lean on the support of someone else who is a single parent that helps with the process.
Another thing that I’ve done is called Connect With Community event. That is bringing in transitioning active duty women and transitioning women veterans, with women business leaders in the local area. You sit them down at tables of ten. Rather than speak at them, and have a speaker get up and tell their story, you put the work on them.
We facilitate a question and answer session. The moderator will ask a question, “What was one of the biggest leadership challenges you had in your career?” Then we have a business mentor and a veteran mentor that sit at the table with the transitioning active duty and veteran and everyone answer the questions.
Now the business leaders can actually start to understand what these women have done in the service. It also builds that personal relationship and removes that table that exists, which is a symbol of a barrier that exists at these job fairs. It builds a sense of connection to your local business community and support. I’m really excited about that event, and we’re going to replicate it in Orange County and LA.
You mentioned single parents; do a majority of women veterans face this situation?
About half of the women we serve are single mothers. One of the biggest challenges for a single parent, out of the military, is childcare. On-base childcare is cheap; I knew a woman with a one year old paying about $98 a week. Off military base childcare can be anywhere from $200 to $400 a week, it’s a mortgage payment. That’s something that they’re not necessarily prepared for, because there’s this assumption that when they get out they’re going to find a job that is comparable to what they were receiving in pay in the military.
Also those who go to school, have no means to cover childcare. These women would have to work, go to school, and pay for childcare all at the same time. A lot of these women don’t have family in the area when they leave the service. It’s not grandma down the street that’s going to watch your kid.
Tell me about what you faced personally, after leaving the Marines.
I served in the invasion of Iraq, in 2003 and then again for a year from 2004 to 2005. I turned 21 during the invasion and was 22 years old when I wrapped up.
After leaving, I applied my military service and did a couple of contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. A lot of my 20’s were spent in a combat environment.
I moved back home to Connecticut immediately following my service, with my parents, which was not necessarily the plan. I just did what I thought I was supposed to do — I registered for a community college, got a job as a waitress, and an additional job as a bartender. I started classes and I immediately found myself super frustrated. I was really trying to find a way to humble myself because I felt like I was doing something that was beneath me.
I think that came from the fact that I was an intelligent analyst and provided real-time information and assessments that allowed people like a General Mattis — now Secretary of Defense — who I worked under to make decisions on mitigating threat to our troops.
It is a job where you say, “Don’t use that road, because for the past three weeks, we’ve seen an increase of vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) [car or truck bomb]. You should probably choose this route or these procedures.” When you’re doing that and then you are a waitress — reading the specials —nothing really compares. There’s kind of the loss of self.
I was frustrated with going to a community college with a lot of younger people around me. My family was not in a position, and this is part of the reason I went into the military, to give me advice about applying to a better school. There weren’t any veterans service organization that I knew about that time, and absolutely none that served women.
One of my friends received a contracting job at the Space and Naval Warfare Center in San Diego. He called and said, “They’re hiring for a curriculum developer, would you be interested?” Unlike many veterans, I had a top-secret security clearance and skills that could give me a job in the government. That’s not going to be the case for everyone.
I have two younger sisters. The middle sister, she is eight years younger than I am, joined the Air Force. She was a military police officer and also served in Iraq. She got out and faced the same challenge. She made a much bigger leap and risk than I did. She went back to Japan on a student visa, and went to school there. Now, she’s a kindergarten teacher at an international school. She absolutely loves it and I always use her as a model of success. She wasn’t married and she didn’t have kids, neither do I. That puts us at an advantage.
Some of these other women just don’t have…honestly, it breaks my heart…to look at the difference in opportunities that some of these women have because they do have children and they can’t afford childcare.
I moved to California and navigated my way through the business culture, made a lot of mistakes, found out a lot about myself, went back on contract overseas, and came back home. I started to think, “Who helps my population? Who’s helping these women?”
What was something you learned about yourself during this time?
My gosh. That I’m so much more capable than I ever thought. And that people are built for helping people. We don’t have to do it alone.
What was something you have learned during your service that helps you today in your role as Executive Director?
In my service, people are going to die if I didn’t do my job correctly and to the best of my ability. There’s a sense of urgency, which makes me very much concerned with quality of life.
But now, I’ve taken my ability to not just meet technical challenges but the adaptive challenges and apply that to leading my team to understand that our women come first. There might not always be an obvious solution, but when you implement a holistic approach, we can definitely better someone’s life.
What is a misconception that civilians have of people who have served for our country? Is there a misunderstanding that you see over and again?
Yeah, I think that the Veteran community has done a really great job of raising awareness, but I also think they’ve overreached by creating a stigma associated to veterans. Now the civilian population thinks that maybe everyone has experienced some sort of trauma and that causes someone to be suicidal, drink, or not have mental stability.
I would challenge our communities to realize that not every veteran has been afflicted with some sort of traumatic experience. Even if they have, it doesn’t mean that their achievements, ability, and work ethic do not overshadow any obstacles they might have faced.
I also think that people are thanking service members because they don’t know what else to say and they do appreciate their service.
You can thank veterans, but I would challenge society or the local communities to ask, “How can you use your personal experience and talents to help a veteran?” Can you help write a resume? Can you introduce a veteran to someone that has a career in the field they’re after? How can you use your passion and your purpose to mentor a veteran?
I’m wondering what has been a surprising learning that you picked up during your service that has helped build Foundation for Women Warriors?
My service allowed me the ability to continue to work for the U.S. Department of Defense. One of my assignments as a civilian in Iraq was being a supervisor for an all-male Iraqi internal security team.
There was this language barrier and the cultural differences — they’re not used to seeing women in leadership positions. Or the way I dressed as opposed to the way traditional Iraqi women dress. But that experience was probably one of the most defining and best experiences of my life. We received indirect fire attacks. People were launching mortars over our heads, trying to attack the base, all the time.
Three Iraqi security guards and I went into this bunker. I looked around and realized at that moment that everyone is just trying to survive, whether it is war or everyday life in the states. And our implicit bias needs to be checked and we really need to just help one another.
If you believe the statistics and these ideas or concepts that are made up for you by someone else, you’re going to limit your impact and your personal growth.
Yeah, sometimes I get frustrated with the statistics that are put out by different agencies on women veterans. A lot of it talks about PTSD and military sexual trauma — those issues are very real. But I also think that sometimes when you’re pushing this information down someone’s throat, they might believe it can’t be fixed and not ask for help.
All this time, I’ve interviewed people across different continents and I find we all are in the same boat, no matter what you do in life and where you are, we’re all just trying, what you said, “Get through life.”
Absolutely, my mom was a teenage single mother when she had me. I grew up on welfare for a number of years. I was lucky enough that I had a grandparent that paid for private school. The school system in the area that I lived in — I lived in the projects — was not necessarily the best. I lived in almost two different realities; I went to school with kids that had different opportunities than me, whether you want to call it privileged or not.
For me, college was not an option; my family couldn’t afford it at the time. I went into the military because that was the way that I could receive money for college, gain a skill, see the world, and somehow be a part of something much bigger than myself.
I reflect on that often, when I look at women veterans. Because these are women who might have come from similar backgrounds and just need help getting work. These are women that have taken a risk to challenge the status quo. They served their country and they have skills. They’ve proven themselves successful in the military. They need what I needed growing up, and that was someone just to invest a little bit into their futures.
Maybe the biggest takeaway is that everyone could benefit from understanding that people that serve in the military do it to serve his/her country. And they do it for all different reasons too, but I think a lot of it is to improve themselves. It shouldn’t stop when they get out of the military.
You mentioned your grandparent who had an impact in your life by sending you to a good school. Who else left an imprint on your professional DNA?
I had a really phenomenal high school teacher, Mr. Dileo. He created a program where you were in small groups of ten. He opened the very first class with quite a shocking statement, “I don’t care if your drunk uncle came over to your house last night, and shot out all the windows of your house. Your homework should still be done.”
He basically taught a class on resiliency, and that regardless of the life around you, you are responsible for the choices you make. Regardless of the opportunities you’re given, you need to make the best of it. He is someone that has inspired so many. He passed this year. Sometimes I come off with a no-nonsense, very assertive attitude. I think that’s because it’s been deeply rooted in me, that regardless of what’s going on around you, you can still make amazing choices.
And I had a Gunnery Sergeant in the military. When I checked into his office he said, “I heard you had an attitude problem.” I thought, “Great, this is my first assignment straight out of intelligence school. And this guy is going to try to fix my attitude.” I didn’t know what to expect. And he goes, “Well, that’s good, ‘cause I do too. Welcome to the land of the broken toys. It makes us better analysts.”
He completely stepped out of his rank and mentored us. I showed up with five other Marines from the same class. He mentored us and took the time to invest in us, not just professionally, but also at a personal level — where we were from and getting to know us.
That’s how I lead my organization too; yes, we have a mission, and it’s to serve women to the best of our ability. But also, I sit down with each member of my team and try to figure out what is their passion, and how can I help them facilitate that through this job?
Whether it’s buying a certain type of software to develop their proficiency, or allow them to go to a conference of choice, or get to know them on a personal level. I should be training you and investing in you to leave my organization.
In closing, give me a few words that describe your journey so far.
I guess…unbelievably fortunate. If I believed the statistics, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today. I grew up on welfare, I was a child of a single mother, and according to the stats, I’m not supposed to be an executive director of any organization. Don’t get me wrong…. I have worked extremely hard to get where I am today and I now go to work for a community of women I believe in.
You only need one person that believes in you and see you as an investment rather than a burden.