Leader Spotlight: Teresa Kennedy
Our Leader Spotlights offer a glimpse into our diverse leadership: veterans who are continuing to serve their country and community in creative ways. Today, we profiled Teresa Kennedy, a 2016 distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. She currently lives and works in Washington DC as a defense consultant.
Tell me about your military service.
I joined the Navy in 2012 when I accepted my appointment to the United States Naval Academy. At that moment I became an active duty service member, and every minute of my life for four years was spent following a carefully designed script that prepared me morally, mentally, and physically to be a naval officer. During the academic years, I focused on my studies, physical fitness evaluations, and professional development. Then during the summers, I travelled on cruises to pragmatically apply all the lessons I learned.
I spent the summer of 2013 underway on a nuclear ballistic missile submarine. The next summer I “sampled” the different service communities—aviation, submarines, surface, Marine Corps, etc.—to learn more about the operations of the “Big Fleet.” Finally, during my last summer I had the opportunity to ruck with the Marines at Camp Pendleton. That fall I requested to be assigned to serve as a Surface Warfare Officer and was selected. In January I had the privilege to be one of the first in my class to hand-select the destroyer on which I would serve, and I immediately began discussing my future with the commanding officer. Then, without warning, the course of my life took a dramatic, devastating turn. Doctors discovered a serious cardiac disease, and although the surgery I had to address it was successful, I was deemed non-commissionable by a naval medical committee. My spot on the destroyer was relinquished. I still graduated with a B.S. from the academy that May, but I walked away from the ceremony with no commission and no idea what to do with my life.
Technically, I am a veteran because I spent four years on active duty at the Naval Academy. But those years were spent preparing me in every way for a career in public service to my nation and to be a leader in the Navy. I was not able to realize that dream due to circumstance far outside of my control and that reality still hurts. But I came away more committed than ever to serving my community, my state, and my nation. I still feel called to contribute. In short, my attitude towards my military experience is best summed up by paraphrasing the “Father” of the American Navy, John Paul Jones: “I have not yet begun to serve.”
How did your service shape the person you are today?
I believe my time immersed in military culture helped make me better at assessing the synergy of a group of people. At the academy, we were constantly reminded that mistakes cost lives. As a sailor and a leader, your primary duty is to help your colleagues achieve mission success. We often self-assessed our unit to identify individual strengths and weaknesses, leveraging each to improve unit cohesion. For me, this practice easily translates into my civilian life; I’m constantly evaluating what strengths I have to offer my workplace, my loved ones, and my community. I feel a daily calling to accept responsibility for the success and well-being of my neighbors. This mission-oriented mindset, that working together we can achieve more than we can alone, helps me feel comfortable in becoming involved in issues I see on a daily basis.
I would also like to add that my truncated service makes me feel like I straddle two worlds—the civilian and the military. My closest friends are now serving in the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Air Force; they are stationed abroad, around the country, or on deployment. I know exactly what they are doing, the culture they live in, and the mindset under which they operate, but I cannot be a part of it.
Conversely, my friends in Washington, D.C. understand very little about the daily realities of the military, much less how it’s structured and what its goals are. I straddle these worlds and now, after much early frustration, I realize I am in a position to smooth the transition for my military friends into the civilian world and to elucidate the military world to my civilian friends.
The civil-military divide in this country is stark and it is widening. The effects of our nation having a military that is shrouded in misunderstanding and inaccessible to much of the population are deep and troubling, and the burden lies on both sides of the divide to try and close the gap. I am one individual, but my civic duty is to do all that I can to heal the divide.
As a veteran, what sort of responsibility do you feel to speak up on issues that relate to American ideals?
In 2012 I took an oath to uphold the Constitution and I still take that oath seriously. For me, the two most important ideals in that hallowed document are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the intent to form a more perfect union. I feel the most responsibility to speak out when I see these ideals being infringed upon.
The reality is that inequities and injustices against women, racial minorities, LGBT persons, persons with disabilities, and others, remain rampant in our society. As long as these groups still face violence and discrimination, the goal of a government by the people and for the people is out of reach. Our nation is the most divided it has been in many decades in terms of social issues, political parties, and the feeling that the respect of other people is in decline. My responsibility, as a veteran who took an oath and as a citizen in a democracy, is to work to address the entrenched inequities among social groups and to do everything in my power to achieve unity in our nation.
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?
The ideal that is of particular concern to me right now is the unity of our nation, for it is currently tenuous. The simplest way I can think of to re-forge that feeling of belonging and accountability is to get involved and to bring others into the fold. I am working to invest myself in the D.C. community by joining the board of my local college alumni group, volunteering at my neighborhood dog park, becoming involved in the missions of my church, and hosting inclusive parties in my apartment building. Most effectively, I’m regularly attending local business openings, small restaurant events, and community gatherings like VFAI’s SIV Sips. Not only do I seek out these community engagements, I invite and encourage others to come with me and become involved themselves, hoping that they will become invested as well.
Again, it’s a simple method, not a world changing one, but I think the ripple effect cannot be underestimated. The incessant focus on our divisions prime people to dehumanize the those around them, to mark them as the ones that such-and-such media says are ruining the country. Too many do this without ever trying to get to know them as a person and understand their needs and desires, which are probably not so different from their own.
Investing time and energy—and resources if possible—in the local community or in small businesses can re-invigorate our sense of community and re-humanize the people on the so-called “other-side.” If each of us can do that, we can begin healing the many emotional rifts in our country.
What would you say to other veterans about the role that they can play in these issues as citizens?
I strongly encourage other veterans to not become apathetic. Transitioning from the military is emotionally and logistically taxing. The sudden loss of a close-knit community that the military provides can make veterans feel isolated and as if they do not belong in their communities. Devoting time and energy to identifying ways we can get involved in our communities has helped me, and I believe it has helped my neighbors. Once I made this commitment, it became easy to continue the spirit of service. Truth be told, joining or starting a local VFAI chapter is a fantastic way to invest in your community. I am so grateful to VFAI for continuing to inspire my spirit of service and providing opportunities to act. I am so excited to see what we can all accomplish together as a part of this group.