Yolanda Choates was a good student in Texas who wanted a career in journalism but didn’t know how she could afford college after being accepted to Syracuse University. A recruiter visited her home and told her that the US Army has a similar career field, and so in 1988 she joined and would go on to serve for 20 years in public affairs.
“I think the Army was definitely a great place to start. It taught you everything that you needed to know to be successful. It gave you those tools to be successful,” she said about what motivated her to make a career of the Army.
While joining the army was a different path than that of her family and friends, Choates was comforted by the fact that from the beginning she was surrounded by other women, from her recruiter to her basic class, and that she could reach out to them if she needed.
Throughout her career as a military journalist, Choates was able to see the different sides of the Army and the work of its soldiers. From covering chefs to engineers and the infantry, she was out there experiencing it with the soldiers.
“It was just getting really dirty and doing really different things than I do every day,” she said.
Deciding to make a career of the military was a family decision. After 10 years in the Army, she was married with two children and loved her job, but she had to make a choice at that point of whether she wanted to get out or stay in for another decade.
Her husband—also a soldier— told her it was a no brainer to stay in since she was by then a sergeant first class.
“And I’m like are you kidding me? And he’s like, ‘no we’re in this for the long haul, I thought you knew,’” Choates said, laughing.
Balancing life as a dual military family wasn’t always easy, including times when her kids would have to stay with family while they were away or she would miss out on school events, but Choates’ supervisors supported her when she needed time to be with her family.
“Because they realized that we make sacrifices all the time,” she said.
During her career, Choates went on different training exercise deployments in the Asia Pacific region, producing content like magazines and newspapers in coordination with their allied counterparts.
And one of her best career assignments was teaching the newest generation of public affairs soldiers at the Defense Information School because they were eager to learn.
“I’m glad to know that I’ve made some impact on some journalists and some military or DOD public affairs people,” she said.
In 2008 Choates transitioned out of the Army and it was “kind of scary” because she went from one culture—the military culture— to another.
Little things like going to the grocery store and calling it the commissary or instinctually looking for her cover to put on when leaving the store, made the separation from her life of 20 years somewhat rough for the first six months.
But one thing that she could never let go of was taking care of other people, which became apparent only two weeks into her current civilian job when there was a fire drill.
“In the army I’m conditioned: you go where you’re supposed to go, you take accountability, and then you move out. So I was expecting that,” she said.
But when that did not happen, Choates brought it up afterwards with her supervisor.
Choates says her colleagues do value her opinion, even calling her sergeant major, but she never refers to herself as such.
“When you’re talking about taking care of people, whether you are an army sergeant major, an army colonel, or an NCO in the Army or a manager in the civilian world, taking care of people is very basic,” she said of how her military skills translate into her civilian work.
She is currently working in public affairs at the Department of Homeland Security with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and hopes to one day own her own business.
Choates’ one bit of advice for veterans, especially women veterans, is to make sure your injuries from military service are documented and that if your rating is not what you believe it should be, fight it.
It took Choates seven years to get the VA to change her disability rating from a 30 to a 60 percent, using just the military records she had originally submitted to prove her case.
She believes it took them so long to give her the higher rating because she was a female in a non-combat arms position and so her records were not seen as the same to that of a male, even though she was out covering various units including engineers and light infantry.
“Every time I went somewhere I wasn’t treated differently than the soldiers that I was covering,” Choates said. “I had to do everything that they did so that I could write about it and experience it the way that they did.”
In collaboration with the Service Women’s Action Network, we are featuring an inspiring woman veteran each month. Check out our last featured veteran: U.S. Army veteran Samantha Szesciorka.