Air Force Col. Nicole Malachowski has served as an F-15 pilot, commander of the 333rd Fighter Squadron, and deputy director of service readiness and training.
Now her job is to explain what all that means to a civilian audience.
In September, Malachowski was sworn in as the new executive director of the White House's Joining Forces initiative, which has a stated goal of helping all Americans better understand the sacrifices of troops, veterans and their families.
She's the first woman to hold the post, a distinction that's not new to her. Malachowski was the first woman pilot in the Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team, and has been honored repeatedly in recent years for her pioneering service.
Her new role is also a return to the White House; she served as a White House fellow in 2008.
"Relationships matter," she said. "You'd be surprised how many people I networked with seven years ago … who I still network with now. The interagency environment remains complex, but my first tour in the White House helped me map out all of the assets in the federal government."
Those connections are critical, because her appointment comes at a key time for the initiative. Joining Forces just marked its fifth anniversary, but next year's presidential election will bring plenty of questions about the project's future.
Malachowski says she's ready for the task, as well as "heartened by the amount of people and organizations who want to do wonderful things to support our military service members, veterans and their families."
Q. What do you see as the top issues for Joining Forces in the coming year?
A. As always, we will be looking to raise awareness of the service, skill and sacrifices of our service members, veterans and their families. We'll also continue our efforts across all of our pillars of Joining Forces, but we are particularly focused on reducing veteran homelessness as well as continuing to build awareness and support for our mental health efforts.
And we'll continue to galvanize employers across the country to support our veteran and military spouses. Everything we do this year will be focused on empowering our service members, veterans and their families, and ensuring that they have what they need to be successful.
It's really important for us to root all of our efforts and make measurable progress before the end of the administration.
Q. Are we still at a place where Americans don't have a clear idea of the sacrifices and challenges facing military families and veterans?
A. Raising, and sustaining, public awareness remains a concern. Public interest, across the spectrum of national issues, has a tendency to wane over time.
It's important that mainstream America realize that the military and their families are still serving, day in and day out. Regardless of operational tempo, military families will continue to move every few years, service members will still go through transition, and military families will still face re-integration into their communities.
This way of life — supporting our service members, veterans and their families, welcoming them into our communities, and seeing them as civic assets — is important work, and it's important to first lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden that this remains a priority for people across our country.
Q. What does the upcoming change in leadership at the White House mean for the organization?
A. I think as we look at the next 14 months, we see a lot of opportunity to move the ball forward. That said, the pressure is really on to get this work seeded with our private, government and nonprofit partners. So many people are working in this space, but we really want to ensure that these efforts are sustainable.
The timeline doesn't change our priorities and goals, but it does give us a sense of urgency to plan for the sustainment of ongoing efforts post-administration.
Q. What does it mean to be the first female executive director of Joining Forces, at a time when the military is looking at redefining roles for women in uniform?
A. Right now, women make up about 20 percent of the active-duty force and that number will, hopefully, continue to climb. Just like other previously male-dominated sectors, it's important to recognize the changing demographics and needs of working families.
It's been decades since we comprehensively re-evaluated Department of Defense personnel policies. When most policies were written, the makeup of our military, and military families in particular, was vastly different.
Not only have the number of women in the force increased, but in general, the number of families with the spouse employed outside the home has increased. That's why it is so important that our policies support all military working families, not just those with women service members.
Q. Veterans unemployment numbers have been dropping. Is that an area that Joining Forces still needs to focus on?
A. This is absolutely still an area of focus for our Joining Forces team. Just because we are doing well right now, doesn't mean we should stop efforts. We cannot risk losing momentum in this space.
Regardless of operational tempo, military families will continue to transition to civilian life. Now is the time to codify lessons learned, share best practices, and galvanize relationships between the federal government and employers across America.
Companies now realize that hiring a veteran or military spouse isn't just the right thing to do, it's also good for their bottom line. Some of the best things that are happening in the employment space right now is that folks are really starting to think about, and implement, hiring programs focused on retention and career advancement, rather than just making hires.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.