Conversation with Army Veteran Jasmin Hester on Joining the Military and Becoming an ASD Advocate
Written by: Jasmin Hester with Intro by Juania Owens
United States Army Veteran and AMSG Proposal Manager, Pricing Assistant, and Technical Editor, Jasmin Hester is intimately familiar with overcoming the odds and charting a new course when life doesn’t go as planned.
At 20-years-old, Hester joined the Army as a means to secure a new future that would provide her with better opportunities. Her service led her overseas where she was deployed to Iraq for 15 months during the Iraq War troop surge. Just a few months into her deployment, she and her Unit experienced a horrific tragedy when they lost several members of their Platoon to an IED. Somehow, she managed to push through, becoming a rock and a sounding board for the members around her. At that point she also became the lone Medic in her Platoon for a short period of time and later worked with the Kirkuk Iraqi Policewomen during their cadet training.
Four years later, honorably discharged, she began transitioning back into civilian life, another hurdle to overcome, as her tenure in the Army and serving overseas had fundamentally changed her and her outlook on life. Hester’s life would take yet another unexpected turn when she gave birth to her daughter, Symphony, who was subsequently diagnosed as Level 2 Autistic. Her daughter’s developmental disability and late-stage diagnosis propelled Hester to become an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) advocate.
In this intimate and heart wrenching interview, Hester recalls her deepest thoughts on joining the Army and her experience serving overseas. She passionately shares her years-long fight for her daughter’s diagnosis to be recognized and acknowledged, the advice she’d give to parents who are searching for answers, and what ASD advocacy looks like and why it’s important. Read her story and interview below.
AMSG: What prompted you to join the Military?
JH: It was 2006. I was 20-years-old exhausting myself, working three minimum wage jobs averaging 80-hour weeks just to pay rent, trying not to starve, and afford community college – PS: I still couldn’t afford those things.
I was in dangerous debt at an early age. A lifelong friend of mine had been meeting with a military recruiter and shared his experiences with me. I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin and the military presence was minimal. The nearest base was a training one several hours away. I only knew a few people who were reserves and none of whom were my peers.
After struggling to survive, though, I figured it was worth at least meeting with a recruiter. My recruiter, like most, was engaging and painted a picture of adventure, success, escape, and free college. Also, because America was engaged in conflict in both Iraq and Afghanistan, there was a nice incentive bonus in an amount I couldn’t hardly imagine receiving nor spending.
I was used to a diet of cigarettes to suppress my appetite, and Mountain Dew for the caffeine and sugar to keep pushing through working at the veterinary clinic, overnight as a security guard, and seasonally at a bookstore, all the while pretending to attend community college as a Clinical Laboratory Technician in a feeble attempt to take tiny steps towards my ultimate goal of becoming a Forensic Pathologist.
Maybe with this Army stint, all my dreams could come true. I could finally escape my circumstances – I would serve my required contract and then go to a university for free. My family was not receptive at all. They were horrified because of the war we watched on TV from the comfort of our living room. Would Jasmin end up there? Could Jasmin even do this? She’s a girl. She’s a petite 5’1”.
The most supportive person during this time was my grandma. She was one of 13, a first generation American, and a Great Depression kid born in 1923 who was widowed when my mom was only seven years old. She was tough but, in her way, loved me more than life itself.
I remember taking my grandma to lunch at her favorite restaurant, Julie’s Café, on Main Street, so I could break the news that I had joined the Army kind of secretly. I expected the same responses I received from my parents: fear, sadness, and negative reactions. Instead, my grandma simply stated, “This will be good for you.”
I was shocked. Reflecting now, she was absolutely right. I probed her for information on her health because I didn’t want to go away for four years if she was ill. She was in her 80s at that point, but still driving and living independently. She assured me that she was well. But two and half years later when she was in hospice, I learned that at my life-altering decision point, she likely had known about her cancer diagnosis, but told no one. She set me free.
AMSG: Describe your military experience? What did you do?
JH: Oh man, that’s a big question! Basic training was nothing like I expected. I knew it would be challenging, but I didn’t know I was going to end up getting hairline fractures in my hips in two places just from walking really fast while carrying heavy stuff!
Regular Army was also different than I expected. I thought there would be constant training both as a Soldier and as a Medic. That was not the case. I did not get assigned to a clinic or a hospital like I thought I would. I was assigned to one of the most often deployed Units at that time: 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, NY.
The ebb and flow of “work” was strange when stateside. There would be times when we would train 24/7 and there were times when we would do nothing, but also would not be released. The downtimes were boring and involved a lot of self-entertainment like hacky sack with my battle buddies while standing around the motor pool in subzero temperatures (upstate New York winter weather is not a joke).
Deployment was, well, a whole thing. My Unit was one of the only ones who deployed to Iraq for 15 months. The military learned within a few rotations that 15 months is far too long to expect Soldiers to maintain strength, effectiveness, and sanity. Eventually, they moved back down to 12 months and then finally to nine. During my time deployed, two of us medics were prestigiously tasked out to a Military Police Platoon within the Special Troops Battalion where we as a group provided Personal Security to the Brigade Commander and Command Sergeant Major.
We completed over 365 missions during that deployment. On November 5, 2007, just a few months into our deployment, we lost a truck and four Soldiers from our Platoon – Staff Sergeant John D. Linde, Staff Sergeant Carletta Davis, Sergeant Derek Stenroos, and Private First Class Adam Muller – to an IED. After that, I was the sole Medic for the Platoon for a bit, as there were only two of us and Staff Sergeant Davis (the lead Medic) was killed during the attack. It was hard. Really hard.
But there were fulfilling times, too, though. I was able to work with the Kirkuk Iraqi Policewomen during their cadet training. Through an interpreter, I was able to teach basic first aid and I provided first aid to them as needed. Many of the women didn’t have access to proper health care while training (and perhaps not prior, also). One woman I treated had a deep seeded infection on her leg exposing bone that required me to request our Brigade Surgeon to make a trip to the academy to prescribe medication, and work with me to create a regiment to treat her while I could. Left unattended, I’m not sure she would have survived.
What was it like transitioning from Military to civilian life?
JH: The transition was difficult. Though I only served four years, I felt fundamentally changed from my time, especially overseas. Almost immediately after transitioning out, I started community college again (this time for Criminal Justice – the Military Police left an impression on me).
Though I was only 24, I felt decades older than my classmates. I couldn’t relate to anyone. It was a lonely experience. I had just married my then husband and he immediately deployed to Afghanistan. So, it was just me and my new rescue dog, Jewel (who I still have!).
After my then husband returned from his second deployment, we were moved to Stuttgart, Germany. I continued college. This time enrolling in a four-year program, majoring in Criminal Justice with a minor in Sociology concentrating on social deviance.
Then, my beautiful, difficult, unique daughter was born and my priorities shifted again. I stopped school and I joined the Family Readiness Group (volunteering my time by giving back to the Unit my then husband was serving in) and started working at the Veterinary Treatment Facility. First, as a front desk representative and eventually, promoted to the Operations Manager. By keeping myself busy with school, work, my daughter, and forcing myself to engage with the community, I was eventually able to transition to no longer being an active-duty soldier. I don’t think I’ll ever view myself as a civilian, though.
AMSG: How/when/why did you become an advocate for the Autism community?
JH: My first true love, Symphony, was born in 2013 in Stuttgart, Germany. And she did so with a fierceness. It was a difficult and complicated
pregnancy. She was a tough infant with colic. She had sensory and sleep issues as a toddler that I thought was just fussiness. She had trouble making friends in PreK, always preferring to be alone in a quiet space. She couldn’t tolerate having her hair brushed and walked around with matted hair until I finally cut off those gorgeous baby curls. She couldn’t wear pretty, frilly dresses with tulle and sequins or the adorable black leather combat boots I bought for her. But she was so smart and communicated well!
However, when she was in third grade, Symphony was diagnosed as Level 2 Autistic after years of tears, scratches, fights, therapy, school interventions, and doctors’ appointments. It should have happened sooner – specialty care should have started years prior. However, because she can hold a conversation, make eye contact, and is generally academically bright, doctors did not take me seriously when I screamed and cried that something was different and that I needed help.
Eventually, by coincidence (or by fate), a new provider, who would end up changing our lives, joined the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital. This doctor’s position was to provide intermittent and crisis-based therapy to children while waiting for insurance to authorize referrals or openings to happen within the hospital.
Symphony was having an exceptionally difficult time in third grade. She was spiraling academically and the subjects she used to love and do for fun, she started to hate. I made yet another plea to her Primary Care Manager’s team to help me help her. A nurse recognized the circumstances and suggested a meeting with this new doctor.
I had no faith, though. We’d been to so many providers. However, we set up the appointment and within ten minutes of that crisis-based therapy appointment, the doctor stopped it and said, “We have to set up a different appointment. This isn’t the right kind.”
She observed behaviors from Symphony that triggered her to shift her focus. We then had a 30-minute chat where I learned that her previous assignment was screening children for autism. She asked me if I knew anything about autism. This is when I started crying. This was my suspicion for years, but I kept being told Symphony can make eye contact. She can hold a conversation. She can’t be autistic.
Now, here was someone who was expertly qualified to see the signs and cues without my prompting or asking. She just saw us. She saw Symphony. This was not her job at this assignment, but she was going to make an exception and officially get Symphony through the Autism Screening process. I cried. So hard. So much. I finally felt validated as a parent. Symphony finally, officially, had a name for her feelings, thoughts, and actions. Symphony felt validated that something wasn’t wrong with her. Something is simply different about the way her brain functions. She sees the world in a way I never could.
AMSG: What do you do, specifically, as an advocate?
JH: Most importantly, I advocate for Symphony. I state this because every Autistic person is different. So when I advocate, I am advocating for her recipe, not for anyone else’s. No one’s autism experience is going to match another.
There will be overlaps, but the disorder is unique to all. It can have comorbidities. It can be the only diagnosis. It can present sometimes. It can present always. It can cause a severe need for support. It can be a mild struggle requiring minimal intervention. I don’t advocate for all Autistic people. That would be an unfair assignment and giving me far too much credit. I advocate for Symphony and her version of autism.
AMSG: Why is this so important?
JH: There is a persistent, debilitating stereotype of what an Autistic person looks like, speaks like, suffers from, and with what they need help. Because Symphony does not suffer from any speech-related symptoms, she is articulate.
She is capable of holding a conversation, especially of her choosing. It is not always obvious immediately that Symphony has a syndrome requiring significant support to get her through the day. The fact that her disability is largely hidden has been the biggest struggle of all because expectations of her behavior are higher than those who perhaps cannot communicate (or literally any other presentation of the disorder that is more stereotypically obvious).
She’s told constantly to go against her fundamental self to succeed in life. She should not fidget. She should not squirm. She shouldn’t say that to her friends. She shouldn’t do that weird thing. She shouldn’t stare blankly at anything or anyone for too long. She should just pay attention in class and play tag with the other kids because she doesn’t look or act precisely how someone perceives this (or any) disability.
Even I fall into this trap every once in a while. But I take a step back and recognize Symphony is struggling when she’s having a meltdown or says something wildly inappropriate or extremely rude. She deserves grace. She deserves patience.
This is not a license for her to skirt all of society’s rules, however. There are natural consequences to saying something that might hurt our friends’ feelings. We may not have them as friends any longer. This is the struggle she faces. She cannot join the exciting birthday party because she cannot bear the noise. She had to give up on learning Korean because the free club she joined had too many people and it was so overwhelming. But we will keep trying. We will keep learning.
AMSG: What advice would you give to parents who are in your position and are still searching for answers?
JH: Ready for the incoming cliché? Don’t give up. If your instinct tells you something is worth addressing, continue to chase it down. I’m not good with confrontation. In fact, I’ll avoid it at all costs. However, this is the one thing I just couldn’t stop going after. I knew something was different with Symphony and I knew it required specialists. Even after being rejected so many times, we kept going.
Secondly, be the armor for your child. Life is so hard even with no disabilities. In Symphony’s case, she gets in trouble often for socially inappropriate behavior and things she says. She often doesn’t understand why what she did or said is inappropriate, so it requires me to stand up for her and take the time to explain how the other party may have perceived her actions or words.
This is a delicate dance ensuring Symphony receives the patience and grace she needs and that the other party doesn’t feel invalidated. This summer, we were at the pool and Symphony was struggling with sensory overload, so I asked her to leave the pool so she could recover.
She had a bit of a meltdown involving crying and screaming. Another patron of the pool decided to mock Symphony and tell her that she was too old to react that way. I had to go outside of my “I hate confrontation” to tell that adult that her reaction was also inappropriate, as Symphony is autistic (and quite frankly, even if she wasn’t – totally not that stranger’s place).
This happens semi-frequently. Symphony still receives the natural consequences society provides for socially unacceptable behavior, but also has a person in her corner to help her through it since many times she cannot control it.
AMSG: Is there anything you would change about your story? If so/if not, why?
JH: Again, a cliché response. There isn’t much I would change because I am who am I am because of all of it. The only thing I would change is pressing harder, sooner, and more often for Symphony to receive appropriate care. But everything else…led me to the here and now, and I sincerely love the here and now, even during those rough times.
AMSG: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
JH: Caregivers suffer from burn-out, so it is so important to take care of yourself before you can care for anyone else. I am being a hypocrite because I do not take care of myself, enough. I made the same mistake when I was a medic in the Army.
After we lost our people on that horrendous day, I only allowed myself to grieve for a moment. Immediately I went into action providing a sounding board for the rest of my team if they wanted to use me. But I didn’t use anyone. I thought it was my job to keep us going and that I was strong enough to take on the task. My frontal lobe had not yet completed development, but hey…this is war. We still had a job to do.
That burn-out continues, now, even though I know better. I can tell when I’ve neglected myself for too long because it will bleed into how I react to Symphony’s special needs and even to her neurotypical brother’s super normal seven-year-old boy antics.
But if I overreact, it’s time for me to remove myself and re-center. Unfortunately, I do not have family support close by and babysitters generally stop working with us. But I have a wonderful, supportive partner; however, I promised myself I will never abuse his grace and his patience.
I have to get really creative with my self-care and it typically involves: deep cleaning, independent grocery shopping, and noise-cancelling headphones (when it’s safe) blasting anything from Shania Twain to Ludacris to Tool. I know it doesn’t sound appealing, but I can feel the weight lifted from appreciating those precious non-thinking, meditative moments.