We are entering a period of unprecedented global tensions, a point where the organization and efforts of our armed forces matter more than ever. The sacrifices they make as they work in countries and territories far away from their families doesn’t just benefit our country — it also benefits those fighting for the right to democratic autonomy abroad.

TonaLaw scholarship winner Ashley Elliot

In order to recognize the dedication of our armed service members, Tona Law awards several veterans with a scholarship fund of $2,500 in the spring and fall of each year. Our most recent recipient, Ashley Elliott, is a dedicated soldier who served in Ukraine. Ashley is seeking to become a Physician’s Assistant (PA) and to practice emergency medicine, potentially as a member of the National Guard. Her willingness to overcome her own personal challenges and to demand equal respect in how she’s treated in the military are an inspiration to others, and they communicate to us that she will no doubt find success in her future medical career.

A Call to Serve Her Country

Growing up, Ashley Elliott had always held a deep respect for her dad’s time spent serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. However, she had never really considered joining the armed forces herself. It wasn’t until she worked the graveyard shift at a gas station with a student in the Reserve Officers Training Corps that she had even given the prospect of serving some thought. After listening to the co-worker share her experiences, Ashley was impressed. She decided to become a medic in the Army National Guard and to use her GI Bill to pay for medical school once her service period was completed.

Ashley’s sudden realization that she could be a service member who helps save lives was a big motivator in her decision.

“I grew up believing that girls couldn’t do things like that. I wanted to disprove that notion and find out how strong and capable I was.”

She found her training intense and challenging but ultimately fun. During the course of her first leg of service, she says she “made some lifelong friends and unforgettable memories.”

A Challenge Reintegrating Back to Civilian Life

After her initial service, Ashley faced a bumpy return back to her everyday life. Slipping into the routine of school was more challenging than she expected, and it was even rockier when coupled with issues her family was grappling with back home.

“I began to struggle with my own mental health. Trying to be strong for my family, I hid it. I could barely eat or sleep. I struggled to keep my grades up while working and volunteering, but I refused to quit. I finally realized that I needed help.”

Realizing she could no longer avoid her own problems, she sought help from a medical professional. Her doctor diagnosed her with clinical depression and hyperthyroidism. The diagnosis did not gel with Ashley’s self-image she felt she was expected to uphold.

“At age 20, this was hard to accept. I didn’t want to take psychiatric medication. It didn’t fit with the military’s philosophy of “mental toughness.” I somehow graduated early and gave up on applying to medical school. I was too sick to handle the workload. I had given up on myself.”

Seeking direction and a return to structure, Ashley sought out the certainty that only the military had been able to provide her. She volunteered to deploy with the National Guard in Ukraine, an experience which ultimately became rewarding but that at the time served to only challenge her mental well-being further.

“Deployment was a good experience, but it was difficult. The environment was unsafe for me. I was one of few females amongst many men, and I felt like I was walking around with a target on my back. There was a lot of drinking and inappropriate behavior. I was sexually assaulted by a superior.”

Ashley’s experiences were all-too common. A survey revealed that 8% of female service members reported unwanted sexual contact in 2021.

Like many others, Ashley initially chose not to report her assault. The effect on her psyche was immediately noticeable, and it caused her self struggles to only intensify.

“When I made it home, I was a shell of a person. I worked long hours and exhausted myself to avoid dealing with my issues. I self-medicated with alcohol. My drinking got out of control, and I was arrested for driving while intoxicated in June 2019. Thankfully, I had a friend who talked me into getting help.”

After trying to deal with her mental health challenges on her own, Ashley made an important call: she scheduled an appointment with a counselor at the Veterans’ Center. 

“I was finally able to be honest about what was going on with me and she understood. She referred me to treatment and gave me a list of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) meetings. I went to a meeting that same day.”

A Rallying Cry to Serve Yourself and Your Own Needs

Based on the way she describes her service, Ashley is immensely proud of her achievements and feels rewarded for all the hard work she put into her time in the U.S. Military. In fact, she states that when she graduates with her PA certification that she may even return to the National Guard to provide emergency medical treatment.

Her treatment by others in the military and the toxic environment she sometimes was exposed to both presented major challenges, but the ultimate challenge was within.

“My deployment to Ukraine was really hard for me. I was not mentally or emotionally prepared to handle the stress. The experience taught me a lot about the importance of self-care and having people to confide in when things get tough. I also learned that I can’t run away from my problems. A change of scenery can sometimes be good but will not fix everything. I definitely gained some perspective that allowed me to move forward when I got home.”

During her time spent in counseling, Ashley realized that she had been living with symptoms of her depression since age 13. She wonders how many years of her life were tarnished by her dampened experiences as a result of her unwillingness to acknowledge her challenges and to seek help. In light of this revelation, she urges anyone who feels like they are having struggles to reach out to professionals without any hesitation.

“We tend to isolate and keep our struggles to ourselves, which only makes them worse.”

She urges anyone who has served and who is experiencing mental health problems of any stripe to call the Veterans’ Crisis Line, which is available 24/7.

“I have called several times myself and always felt better after talking to someone.”

Ashley also encourages anyone who knows someone who is dealing with personal challenges to “be there for them — listen and let them know they are not alone.”

Above all else, though, Ashley wishes to inspire any women currently serving in the military or who aspire to serve to seek to become the best version of themselves, not the version of themselves they feel pressured to become based on sexist double standards.

“I would like to remind young female soldiers that they do not have to prove themselves worthy of serving. We do not have to work harder or try to be stronger or smarter than the men- we just have to be ourselves. Staying true to themselves is probably difficult for all young people in the military, but it is important.”

A Hero, and a Future Lifesaver in the Making

At the end of the day, Ashley is a human like any other. Her gumption and drive to become a PA make her stand out as a soldier and a member of her community, but that doesn’t make her impervious. She is as susceptible as anyone else to the mental struggles that most of us endure.

Yet, through the help and encouragement of others, Ashley has persevered. She will attend the first classes of her PA program in January 2023, and she hopes to then move onto emergency medicine. She assures us she will undoubtedly thrive in this environment.

“I already know I enjoy the fast pace and variability of the emergency department. It requires ongoing learning and adapting that challenges and excites me.”

Ashley’s personal interests include hiking and spending time outdoors. She also likes reading, writing, and completing crossword puzzles. Clearly, she enjoys the challenge that comes with undergoing a journey. Her latest: the journey of being a newly minted foster parent!

As she pursues the next leg of life’s voyage, we wish Ashley the best of luck, and we encourage her to continue to follow her own advice: look to the support of others, and don’t be afraid to admit that you — like all of us — need help to get where you hope to be.