A Few Minutes With Abbie Holland-Schmit
- Chez Veterans Center
- Military Sexual Trauma
- Abbie Holland-Schmit
- University of Illinois
- College of Applied Health Sciences
- Kinesiology and Community Health
Vince Lara speaks with Abbie Holland-Schmit, who is working as a project ambassador on a veteran military sexual trauma community engagement project. We discussed why Abbie joined the National Guard, her work with Wounded Warriors, and why she's passionate about the MST project.
VINCE LARA: Hi, and welcome to another edition of A Few Minutes With, the podcast that showcases Illinois' College of Applied Health Sciences. I'm Vince Lara, and today I'm speaking with Abbie Holland Schmit, who is working as a project ambassador on a veteran military sexual trauma community engagement project. We discussed why Abbie joined the National Guard, her work with Wounded Warriors, and why she's passionate about the MST project.
My first question would be, what made you join the National Guard? Was there anything that inspired you? Are you from a military family?
ABBIE HOLLAND-SCHMIT: No, my dad was a local elected official. He was a county clerk. And I grew up in a small town of 2000 in Wisconsin. It was very rural and we had a small little river that ran through it and would flood quite often. So it wouldn't be abnormal to see the National Guard being deployed to my hometown.
VINCE LARA: Oh, wow.
ABBIE HOLLAND-SCHMIT: And we just kind of grew up with a sense of giving back and community service. So joining the National Guard, for me, just seemed to make sense. It'd pay for school, I could give back to my community and country. I really thought it was cool that they're going to pay me to work out and stay and get fit. So it just seemed to like hit all the wickets at 17? Your brain is like putting out there like, oh, they're going to pay me to work out? Absolutely. Like, so, yeah, it was just a bunch of things that it seemed to make sense to me at the time.
VINCE LARA: One of the things, Abbie, that I noticed in looking at your background prior, you know, to do my research for the podcast, was that you talked about the transitional challenges that military members face when they're going back into civilian life, if you will. And I'm interested in wondering what kind of transitional challenges you may have faced.
ABBIE HOLLAND-SCHMIT: Yeah, so I was actually in college when I was called up. We were activated with 48 hours notice, which doesn't happen anymore, to my knowledge. So I had actually just paid off my check to the school that I was going to and went and checked my emails and it said to who it is concerned, the 229th has been called to active duty. Please report to your designated armory within 48 hours.
So, again, being at that time 19, I guess it was 20, I ran back down and asked for my check back. I'm actually not going to be in school. Can I get that check back? Everyone was very, very lovely, and they didn't make me pay for that semester. But, yeah, so, you know, just kind of being ripped out of the learning environment very abruptly, and then we went to Fort McCoy and we sat there and we didn't know if we were going to go or not because Turkey closed their borders. And the US was going to send troops down through Turkey and up through Kuwait, while sending 150,000 troops through one location created quite the backlog.
So we sat there. And, you know, every weekend that you could get home and get a pass, you kind of kissed your family goodbye like it was last time 'cause you didn't know whether or not you would be called up that week and get a flight to go. So we sat there from February until May and then Mother's Day weekend was our last weekend home. And we caught a flight to Iraq, well, to Kuwait and then to go to Iraq.
So, you know, everything was very abrupt. And there was a lot of hurry up and wait. And when I got back, the whole time that I was there you kind of have this fantasy of what it's going to be like to come back home, you know, there's a lot of downtime that really no one talks about. But like in that time you just fill the void with, well, I'm going to go right back to school, and I'm going to be able to pick up life, and things are going to be just as cool and crazy as it was when I left my freshman year.
And I came back, and my first semester back, I did OK. I think I might have gotten one C, which was a first for me. And then the second semester things really started to fall apart. I ended up dropping out of every class except for one. And, you know, it was really just the grace of the teacher that helped me get through that class and extended her kindness and warmth and understanding.
So I think part of it is just this dissonance between what you imagine when you come home and then what the reality is. And the reality is that life has changed and gone on without you, and you are a completely different person. You're no longer that freshman that's green to the world. You come back and you have a lot of experience. And you've seen things and been in the heart of things that other people can't understand.
And, you know, after a long time of kind of being resentful of that, of people being what I felt was a little superficial, and that was very judgmental on my part, I came to terms that like it's a good thing that people don't understand. Like what I know is both a privilege and a curse. So it just took a long time to come to terms with everything I think.
VINCE LARA: I imagine that's why you wanted to work with injured soldiers.
ABBIE HOLLAND-SCHMIT: Yeah, so I ended up switching schools and going to Edgewood College, which is a very small school, and had very great intimate relationships with all of my professors. And I got a bachelor's of science in both political science, or, yeah, political science, and psychology. And when I came out, I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to help others.
And saw this job for Army Wounded Warrior advocate. And it was assisting the most injured, ill, and wounded. And so I was a non-clinical case manager. And I really just kind of found my steps. In a lot of ways it was peer mentoring, right? Like I'm working with my peers, seeing the things that they're going through. In some ways I could see how their PTSD manifested, and I could look at my own self and see how I could relate to that.
And so, you know, it helped me grow. It grew me as a person. It grew me professionally. And it just felt like a good fit.
VINCE LARA: From there, it wasn't a direct line, but you ended up working in the Wounded Warrior program. What were some of the projects you worked on there?
ABBIE HOLLAND-SCHMIT: Yeah, so I went from AW2, the Army Wounded Warrior program, to Wounded Warrior Project, which is the nonprofit known for giving out backpacks and bedside, and then grew much larger than that. So I was pretty much like a regional manager, covered down up to 10 states. I think when I left it was over 10,000 warriors and family members. And they've just grown considerably.
My job was to connect warriors to both the services that Wounded Warrior Project provided and create events where veterans could get together, and hopefully stay in touch and kind of find their tribe again. Some of the stuff that I liked the most and kind of has led me to what I'm doing today with the University is putting on women-specific events. So we started off doing the very first women event up here. It was called Dirty Girl Fun Run. And it supported women who have survived breast cancer. And it was a great event.
But what we found was that usually over 70% of the participants had had some type of military sexual trauma. So what started with this little run ended up turning into a national women's event that was run by all staff members that were women. And we had such a great team of women that worked together. It was just phenomenal.
I think for all of us it was very healing and cathartic as well. And we only served military women. So we put on different events throughout the nation. And it was just a really amazing vibe, and creating a tribe that really we were able to take action and get stuff done in Washington DC, and then just the simple thing of connecting to other women who have had similar experiences, and have kind of chewed the same sand, and have been at the same places, and that, too, is really therapeutic and just wonderful to experience.
VINCE LARA: One of your next steps was Illinois Joining Forces. I'm curious about that program and what came out of your time there.
ABBIE HOLLAND-SCHMIT: Yeah, so Illinois Joining Forces stood up a women's program. We were finding and we know that women right now are unfortunately one of the highest growing populations for homelessness. Basically for everything that is bad in the military, it's even worse on the women's side. So finding women that were here to throughout the state of Illinois and finding out what their concerns were, what was working well, what wasn't working well, we stood up an ambassador program, where that's how I got in touch with Dr. Jeni Hunniecutt.
And she served as an ambassador and really connected other women to each other. And it was just empowerment and being there, listening, you know, what's going on in Champaign and Urbana might not be the exact same thing that women are going through in Chicago. So how do we find out what the issues are? How can we report that back up, whether it's the chain of command or to states?
'Cause some of the issues are the same, whether it's for people that were still in the military, you're only given so much time after you've had a baby, and then you're expected to perform your physical training, your physical exam. And if you have a good commander they'll help you out and make sure that you can get excused from that, but there's no policy that's there, that says it might take a woman's body a year, to get back into shape. And I can tell you after having my second baby, you know it was just more difficult, those types of things.And dressing them and finding them together and then calling on our men allies to support in the changes that we were asking and requesting, to be heard and to be changed.
VINCE LARA: I will out myself here a little bit. My wife and I are big Hallmark fans. And over this past holiday season, there was a movie about a woman who worked in a coffee shop and was sending coffee to her brother, who was active military. And through that, she fell in love with another military member who fell in love with her coffee first. And so when I saw in your bio your work with Veteran Coffee Roasters, I had to ask you about this. So tell me a little bit about Veteran Coffee Roasters.
ABBIE HOLLAND-SCHMIT: Oh my Gosh. Yeah. Veteran Coffee Roasters, I have a huge passion for and love for. Basically, you know, coffee's just kind of that one thing that we can wrap around, but it's taking veterans that are high risk, most of them have been homeless or have had some issues transitioning themselves. And so coffee is a catalyst. Like we teach people the coffee roasting business. And I say we, I'm not there anymore.
But I'm still part of the family, I think. So they get to learn a trade skill and grow themselves professionally. Plus we get to make this wonderful tasting coffee that people can enjoy and really think we all get behind and have pride in the service of the production. But we also had a great team there that we still stay in touch to. You know, we had to cut back a lot because of the pandemic. But even through that, we started off with doing weekly calls, keeping base with each other.
And just had a call with members of the team like three weeks ago and it just feels good to stay in contact and everyone that worked there helped me. I had COVID. They were checking on me and checking up, so it's been a really great, transformative way to produce a product and have lifetime friends.
VINCE LARA: Now the primary reason, but not, of course, the only reason that we're talking, Abbie, is because of your role with this new Veteran Military Sexual Trauma Project that Jenny Honeycutt, who you referenced, is involved in at the University of Illinois. And what's your role with this veteran MST research project?
ABBIE HOLLAND-SCHMIT: So my role is a veteran ambassador, and it's basically letting people know, well, at this point in the game, it's letting people know that you guys are doing an MST study, and trying to get the veterans that could be potential participants in it, and trying to get veterans that may be clinicians and/or civilians to sign up for the project. And as the project goes on, and what is really cool about what the team is doing is that, it's not just research on veterans. It's research that veterans ourselves are doing.
So again it's like taking back the power. And I'm very passionate about this, one, because it puts veterans in the driver's seat, and saying, like so this is how the research has impacted me, and this is how it should be done, or giving that feedback. But, two, I'm a military sexual trauma survivor myself, and finding ways to assist people in their own transitions, and you could be a Vietnam veteran and sister and still be transitioning.
When I say the word transition, I mean throughout our life we go through many transitions, right? And so as we go through some of these transitions, the way that women who are sexual assault survivors can be supported and empowered and take back some of the power that they may have lost, because of their assault or just life in general. So I think that's important.
VINCE LARA: Abbie, is there a way, at this point, for people to contact to be recruited?
ABBIE HOLLAND-SCHMIT: Yes, so we have a email account that's firstname.lastname@example.org, and anything that goes to that box will be seen by Dr. Hunniecutt or the team or myself. We can get you information on how to participate, or, if there are people that want to help us publicize what we're doing, feel free to reach out to us, too. Or you can reach me at AbbieHollandSchmit@gmail.com as well, just in case somebody wants to talk one-on-one. I'm always there to lend an ear and excited about what we're doing and to talk about it and to get other people involved.
VINCE LARA: My thanks to Abbie Holland-Schmit. For more podcasts on Illinois College of Applied Health Sciences, search A Few Minutes With on iTunes, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Radio.com, and other places you get your podcast fix. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.