Kate Hoit always dreamed of joining the FBI. Then she was deployed to Iraq in 2004, and her life took a different turn.
"I was a 17-year-old girl from the suburbs, I was a cheerleader, shitty at math, and I was just really interested in being an FBI agent," she says. After three years in the Army Reserves, she received that unexpected phone call that she would actually be shipping off to war.
Her official assignment? Working for the resident newspaper on the base, covering a wide variety of topics, from the construction of water treatment facilities in local villages to reporting from the hospital as injured soldiers were airlifted in. She spoke with Iraqi civilians and Australian soldiers alike and witnessed everything from horrible injuries to opportunistic generals posing for press photos.
"During that time, I really fell in love with the power of storytelling and journalism and photography," Hoit says.
"It was really just a way to see the war at different levels in a way I never would have if I had just sat behind a computer all day," she continues. "So that impacted me on the ground, and I realized I could tell stories and focus on the more humanized aspects of that."
Hoit saw a lot of things during her year in Iraq, but what she didn't see was the effect her deployment had on her family back home.
Her father was a veteran, too. But his experience in West Germany in the early 1950s was nothing compared to the dangers of the Iraq War, and he worried immensely about the safety of his daughter. This lead to a relapse into alcoholism, and later he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's.
Soon her mother struggled with alcoholism, too. The family ended up losing Hoit's childhood home when her father was checked into a nursing home.
Hoit returned to a very different life than the one she had left.
"I didn’t have anyone to turn to," she says. "My friends got it as best they could, [but] at the time, I was a little bit frustrated going through this whole experience: My family’s destroyed, kind of, and I can’t connect with anyone."
Hoit re-enrolled in college with a newly inspired interest in pursuing a journalism career, but the transition wasn't easy.
She was angry and isolated, and it only got worse — until one of her professors encouraged her to write about her experiences. As numerous psychological studies have shown, the act of storytelling can have a profound effect on traumatic healing.
Hoit discovered a new passion for the ways that storytelling can connect with the veteran experience. "I was like, oh, I have a community again," she says. "It helped with my transition because I didn’t feel as alienated when I started writing."
Then a few of her criticisms drew the attention of the Veterans Affairs department.
They caught the eye of now-Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who had just taken over as the VA's assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, and Hoit was soon recruited into the department's newly formed digital engagement team.
During her time with the team, Hoit launched the department's social media presence and also worked on several crucial public relations campaigns, including Veteran of the Day and Strong at the Broken Places, which aimed to break down stigmas around veterans and mental health.
Since then, Hoit has made a career of helping veterans tell their stories — and making sure the public hears them.
Hoit left her role at the VA and worked in a congressional communications role while she pursued a master's degree in non-fiction writing.
Since then, she's found a new home as director of content at Got Your 6, a nonprofit that works with the entertainment industry, veteran groups, and government organizations to normalize depictions of veterans in the media and empower veterans to build communities and tell their own stories.
And all the while, her mission has remained the same: "You can draw on an emotion or a struggle, and even if people are on the opposite side of the spectrum, you can make that connection with people. That’s my goal with content."
Among their many programs, Got Your 6 offers official certification for films and TV shows ranging from Marvel's "Daredevil" to "Megan Leavey" in recognition of their efforts to depict the veteran experience with greater accuracy and humanity.
"It can be a challenge when people only want to see veterans as broken with PTSD or as superheroes," Hoit explains. "They don’t want see the normalized, nuanced story."
It's been more than a decade since Hoit returned from Iraq, and strangers still email to ask about her experience.
"I feel like, at the end of the day, if you’re helping people and making a difference, then you should use your voice for some greater good," she says. From what she's seen, most veterans are eager and willing to talk about their service and all the complications that come along with it. They just need someone to listen.