Front and Center with Erika Cashin

I met Lt Col Erika Cashin a few months ago and we have become fast friends. A vivacious, generous, and motivated woman, she is never too busy to brainstorm an idea or help someone out. It's hardly surprising, then, that such a woman is the force behind such movements as Lean In Women Military and Lean in Women Veterans. Erika is deeply committed to helping other veterans, and particularly women veterans, grow and succeed and achieve their dreams.

When I asked her if she would be willing to do an interview for my blog, she didn't hesitate to say yes and I am incredibly grateful to her for that. The following interview is slightly longer than my usual, but there is simply no containing this woman and, really, who would want to?

If you know Erika, I hope you find in her words a little inspiration for your day. If you don't yet know her, I hope you'll seek out the opportunity to do so...I promise you will be better for it.

1) You're the Founder of Lean In Military and the Co-founder of Lean In Women Veterans. What motivated you to create these groups and what do you think they offer to women who are serving or have served?

I founded the Lean In Military basically as a happy accident.  I led what turned out to be the first Lean In circle of the military flavor.  This included military women, federal civilians, and military dependents.  We wanted to support each other internally in the circle, but also show those around us that women can be supportive of each other.

As the first military circle, Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, visited us in 2013. After visiting our circle, Sheryl Sandberg said in an interview that supporting military women was the most gratifying thing she had ever done. That drove interest from other women in the DoD, and they started contacting me.  In 2015, about 10 women in the DoD were invited to participate in a circle with Sheryl Sandberg and Secretary Carter.  The DoD Directive was published at that time, to encourage women into higher ranks of the department.  It encouraged leadership to support Lean In circles and authorized use of government facilities and official time to participate in Lean In small circles.  There are now Lean In circles on Navy ships, at all service academies, and deployed locations worldwide.

At a certain point, women that had once been in the service started requesting to join the DoD chapter.  In their requests to join, they indicated they had somewhat different needs than those currently serving.  Many were looking to connect back to the sisterhood they enjoyed while serving.  Others were seeking assistance, connection to their local community, or just wanted to share their story.  To better serve this population, I facilitated an MOU between Lean In and the VA’s Center for Women Veterans to create a Lean In Chapter specific to women veterans.

When sharing my story and goal with other community Lean In leaders, the leader of the Seattle chapter caught the fire, and jumped in to be a passionate civilian supporter of women veterans.  She became the co-founder of the women veterans’ chapter, and was key in expanding the conversation beyond women veterans to include the community that seeks to support and encourage them.

2) How do women transfer from one Lean In group to the other and why do you think it's important that they make that transition?

Having the military and women veteran chapters loosely connected as sister organizations facilitates women inside the military Lean In community to reach out to the veteran chapter when transitioning. We have members participating in both groups, which leads to an increased awareness between the two communities and more discussion happening to help answer questions, forge connections, or prevent issues.  Underlying everything, the connections formed help battle the isolation that can occur during transition.  Hearing the stories of others that have experienced something similar makes a difference, especially when we understand others have successfully made it through difficult situations, and that we can ask for assistance/help without seeming weak.

3) In addition to being a full-time Reservist serving as a wing commander's chief of staff, a wife, a mother, and a Lean In trailblazer, you are involved in a number of other projects. One of those projects is a pilot program to help women experience a better transition when they leave the service. Can you talk a little about the program and why you think women need additional assistance in the transition?

The current mandated TAP program provides four days of Dept of Labor instruction, and one day of briefing from the Veterans Benefits Administration, on topics such as compensation and pension, education, and loan guaranty.  Briefings from the Veterans Health Administration are not included. The deficit of information and exposure is proving to be the primary tipping point for the many negative trends women veterans are experiencing at an exponentially higher rate compared to their male veteran or women civilian counterparts.

Currently, only 1 in 3 women veterans receive medical care from the VA.  And most women that do enroll don’t do so until 2.5 years after transition, and often only when there’s a crisis, which can make it difficult to navigate the system.  We know that, once they do initiate a relationship with the VA, women veterans return for further care at a rate of over 80%, indicating they value the care they receive.

Our pilot program, which is a joint effort between the Air Force and the VA, is would provide an additional, optional day for women transitioning out of the service.  This day is designed to provide an introduction to the medical benefits women veterans earn for their service.  To start, the additional optional day would be provided at six pilot locations nationwide.  This day would include a tour of the closest VA Women’s Clinic, and informative briefings regarding the extensive medical benefits the VA provides their women veterans, such as prenatal care, mental health services, and in-vitro fertilization.  These women will also be encouraged to enroll in VA health care upon leaving the service, raising the ratio of women participating in VA health care, and providing women some connection during transition. The hope is that this effort will have a positive impact on the long term negative trends women veterans face, and ensure they return for continued preventive and general medical care.

4) Another of the projects that you were involved in is the #IServed Campaign. A collaboration between Lean In Military, Lean In Women Veterans and the Think Broader Foundation, an organization focused on confronting social stigmas and bias in the media, the campaign launched on Veterans' Day last year to help change the narrative around women who serve or have served. Can you talk about what aspects of the narrative the campaign is trying to change and how you think this will impact society and women veterans going forward?

Last year’s #IServed campaign was primary designed to increase the visibility of women as part of the larger veteran population.  The campaign was very simple: a 10 second video with the common script of “I’m (name), and I served in the (branch).  This is what a veteran looks like.  I served.”  We asked women to submit the videos to us, and post them throughout social media.  We received hundreds, from all branches, and service areas back to World War II.

Why did we do this?

While women are the fastest growing sub-population of our nation’s veterans, we still struggle to identify as veterans, particularly pre-9/11 era women veterans.

This is a two-fold issue, affecting the women veteran group both externally and internally.  The external impact is really cultural…how society in general hasn’t historically seen women as veterans.  Circulating these videos through social media showed that veterans can be many women you encounter in a day.  We received videos from women that included careers like French teacher, NYC transit worker, medical student, stay-at-home mom, doctor, nurse, and world-class athlete.  The point was that we want people to go through their normal day wondering if the women they encounter could be veterans, just as they might with men.

From the internal perspective, possibly influenced by society, women who serve or have served don’t always self-identify as veterans. This often can cause them to isolate or not pursue benefits, opportunities, or networks that are designed for veterans. Just saying the words seemed to be powerful for so many.  All of the videos we received showed that these women had such pride in their service, and really wanted to say the words out loud, and more…to share them.  Some of my favorites were those that included others in the video, mothers, friends and supporters.  There’s something special about knowing we started both the intimate conversations when the videos were recorded, as well the bigger discussion when the videos were shared throughout social media.

5) LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company just released the 2017 Women in the Workplace Study. According to the study, only about 20% of "C-Suite" positions are filled by women and women report a number of challenges when advancing their careers. How do you think movements such as Lean In Military/Lean In Women Veterans and the #IServed campaign can help women service members and women veterans advance their careers?

At the very foundation, these movements show how women can be supportive of each other, rather than feeling like they need to compete with each other. I think there are multiple reasons, but one is that we’re not seeing enough “reachback” from the women that have made it to the higher echelons of leadership.  Women in all types of positions, and particularly those in the “C-suite,” need to consciously reflect on how much they mentor emerging leaders, both male and female. Their stories of how they got where they are, are very useful for a man or woman that might be struggling with work life balance, or looking for knowledge on how to advance their goals, as well as showing any gender how women can be great leaders.  Lean In and similar resources encourage that kind of reachback and help facilitate these powerful and necessary conversations.

You can also find Lean In Women Veterans on Facebook.

And Erika is looking for feedback on her transition pilot program. If you're a women who is serving or has served, please add a comment or contact After the DD-214 with your take on how useful/helpful you think the pilot program would be.

© 2017, Captain. All rights reserved.

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