Leader Spotlight: Arti Walker-Peddakotla
As part of United Religions Initiative North America’s #TangibleHope campaign, Veterans for American Ideals is recognizing veteran leaders who are continuing their service by building unity and standing up for American values. Through a series of interviews, we’re asking VFAI leaders to share more about how their service shaped them and what responsibility they feel veterans have to speak up on issues that relate to our national ideals.
Today’s interview is with Arti Walker-Peddakotla, a U.S. Army veteran and the daughter of immigrants from India. She lives in Chicago, where she is a senior product manager for a nonprofit and runs an annual conference for women in tech.
Tell me about your military service.
I served for 6 years in the Army, from 2000-2006. Joining the military was something I didn’t ever think was going to happen, and it’s something I did more out of necessity than anything else. My family situation wasn’t in a great place at the time, and I wanted to go to college, but didn’t have the support or the money. At that young of an age, I couldn’t envision how to make it all work. So, I joined the military because I knew that eventually after my service was completed, I could go to college and complete my degree.
I really wasn’t prepared for anything I was about to get into—both from a physical and mental perspective. I was a scrawny nerd who had never run a mile, and now I was supposed to run 2 miles, and do push ups, and climb up walls? I’m still not sure how I made it past basic training!
After basic, I trained in Texas, and was then stationed at AFIP (Armed Forces Institute of Pathology), one of the oldest forensic institutes in the nation (it is now closed). It was an incredible tri-service institute, filled with people who loved the work they were doing.
How did your service shape the person you are today?
I was fortunate during my time in service that I never saw combat. But when 9/11 happened, my life changed. One of the functions of AFIP, that I wasn’t aware of when I started working there, was to assist with autopsies on anyone that was killed or died in service. 9/11 was the largest casualty event on American soil in my lifetime, and being at AFIP meant that we were doing autopsies on service members killed in the wars on an almost daily basis.
It’s not something that AFIP veterans talk about. Whenever we were deployed to Dover AFB, we knew that we had to prepare ourselves to see things our minds couldn’t imagine. And once you saw what you did, you couldn’t unsee it. In some cases, you are haunted by it for the rest of your life.
Serving at AFIP and Dover AFB changed my perspective on war, the military, and the family that I gained during my time in service. There is a human cost to service that the general public doesn’t see when we choose to send our military to war. This is why we need more veterans in public office—people that have served, regardless of political party, that understand the ultimate sacrifice that our service members might have to pay, so that when they decide to send our troops to war, they do so knowing that it’s the last option they have, and not the first.
As a veteran, what sort of responsibility do you feel to speak up on issues that relate to American ideals?
I’ve written about how I’ve served a country that didn’t always protect me, a country where I’ve been called a terrorist, where I sometimes fear that my son and daughter will face the same, or even more xenophobia than I faced. But I have so much hope for our future when I look at our young people and see the multiracial society they are growing up in today. That’s the America I fell in love with when I was in the military, and that diversity is one of the things that makes our military, and our country, the most powerful in the world.
When I transitioned to the civilian world, I felt so out of place—like I once again didn’t belong. I knew I had to speak out. If I, someone who has served this nation, can feel like I don’t belong in it, imagine how someone more vulnerable than me might feel? Imagine how an immigrant or refugee that is just trying to make his or her way in this country might feel about being called a terrorist and criminal?
Tell me about one issue related to those ideals that is of particular importance or concern to you right now. What are you doing about it?
Fear and hate are spreading across America. But diversity is what makes our country strong. I’m concerned about policies that demonize Muslims, refugees, and immigrants. These are not the values of the country that I love.
Working with VFAI allows me to use my veteran status to push issues in my local community by partnering with local grassroots organizations and educating the local community on the stringent process that immigrants and refugees go through to get here.
What would you say to other veterans about the role that they can play in these issues as citizens?
Speak up. I know that after I got out of the military I was just trying to find my way and make sure I could provide for my daughter, and I really didn’t focus on giving back. Now that I’m in a stable place, I can see that veterans are the best spokespersons we have to address the issues we’re currently facing. Because we’ve already served our country we’ve seen its ideals and values in action, and we know what the words “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” actually mean.