Nominations are closed. Come back February 3 to meet the candidates!

Erin C Lester

Branch: Navy

Duty Station: Defense Health Headquarters

Number of Deployments: 3

Number of PCS's: 6

Share your military spouse story:
I met my husband shortly after September 11, 2001. He was working on his Ph.D. and I was a Media Consultant when we married. I had big plans to follow my dreams and become a News Anchor. Our destiny changed a year into our marriage when my husband said he was interested in joining the U.S. Navy. The day he commissioned; movers were packing our tiny basement apartment and I was concerned about the future. Our lives were changing, and I was nervous. I never imagined the challenges I would face or the rewards this military life would bring. Fast forward to today and I often forget our lives before the military. We have two amazing boys, fantastic friends we call family, and experiences that ground us in our faith and show us our strength. We've lived overseas, experienced 3 deployments and 6 PCS moves. I've worked for 4 non-profits, volunteered across the country and overseas, and focused on helping military families. Our first duty station in San Diego opened my eyes to the unique challenges of a military life. Without understanding the role of a military spouse, we moved across the country. I found a house, was self-employed and alone. I volunteered at Naval Medical Center San Diego and found my calling. My first non-profit job was with the Armed Services YMCA where I spent 4 years serving the wounded, injured, and ill. As part of my job, I met Medevacs brought to the hospital. I greeted many, including my own husband in 2009. My oldest son was born in San Diego. We struggled to get pregnant and needed the help of infertility experts. We are grateful to the military doctors who helped us become parents. Like many military spouses, I gave birth to my first son while my husband was deployed. They met for the first time when our son was 4 months old. Today I am a mother, wife, advocate, leader, and volunteer. I work for Hope For The Warriors, I volunteer in support of military spouses, am PTA President of my kids bi-lingual school, and I’m a Cub Scout Den Leader.

Share an example of your leadership experience within the military community:
I've led volunteers in America and Europe, served as a Director and Senior Director at a couple non-profits, and today I lead an amazing team of spouses and veterans as Head of Warrior and Family Experience at Hope For The Warriors. I am also the PTA President of my children's bi-lingual elementary school and a Cub Scout Den Leader. I've grown as a leader over the years and most of my leadership training was "on the job training". I read books, consult with peers, and participate in leadership trainings in-person and virtually. For example, I recently completed leadership training with a personal leadership coach. The experience was raw and emotional and was an exercise in self-discovery. It showed me that, as a leader, I value the growth and development of the people around me. Reflecting on the most rewarding leadership experiences I've had always involve witnessing the growth of the people around me and I will continue to create opportunities for everyone's growth and development.

Describe your involvement in the military community:
Volunteering led to meaningful employment and memorable moments giving back to fellow military spouses. Recently, in my role at Hope For The Warriors, I co-led a food distribution at Fort Campbell, KY distributing 3,600 boxes of food and $2,000 worth of gift cards to military families. I volunteer at various levels wherever we are stationed. I was Command Ombudsman at Naval Station Rota and Family Readiness Officer for the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force. I was Regional Volunteer Manager for the American Red Cross travelling to military installations supporting the Services To The Armed Forces. I served as Recording Secretary for the Naval Officer Spouse Club DC. Wherever we live, I look for opportunities to get involved. My kids have worked and volunteered with me since they were in diapers. I brought them to volunteer at EFMP events, NICU Reunions at Naval Medical Center, golf tournaments for wounded warriors, and wreaths across America at Arlington National Cemetery.

Describe how you support your community:
I am the Head of Warrior and Family Experience at Hope For The Warriors. I lead a team of veterans and military spouses who are committed to assisting our military community. As my fellow spouses know, military life is uniquely challenging. I believe each day is an opportunity to elevate this community which has given us so much and I work hard to secure the resources and support needed so the military spouse community can live the life they deserve. For example, my work at HOPE involves addressing housing and food insecurity, working to lower veteran and spouse unemployment, scholarship assistance for military spouses and caregivers, and building strong social and community connections for veterans, spouses, and caregivers. I advocate for access to affordable childcare, volunteer with various groups in support of military spouse hiring, and over the years have developed programs that directly support the needs of service members, military spouses, caregivers, and veterans.

What do you advocate for? Why?
I am an advocate for military spouse employment. On average, the Military Spouse unemployment rate is 35%. Between frequent deployments and moving, it is very difficult for spouses to maintain a career. COVID brought additional challenges and many spouses were forced to quit their job. It’s 2022 and it's time for the unemployment rate to come down and for companies to celebrate the benefits of hiring military spouses. Years ago, someone took a chance and hired me. I've built a career, but it has not been easy. I advocate for spouse employment because I know spouses are a valuable resource. Our unique skills are developed under extreme stress including wondering if our spouse will be home for dinner, birthdays, anniversaries, or the birth of a child. We bring skills and real-life experience that translate well whether we work in a classroom, a boardroom, as entrepreneurs, lawyers, medical assistants, or whatever job makes us happy. Spouses deserve to secure meaningful employment.

How have you spread the message of your platform/advocacy?
As the co-chair of the Northern Virginia Military Spouse Economic Employment Zone (MSEEZ) I work with an amazing group of spouses, veterans, and community leaders who believe in the value of hiring military spouses. We encourage community partners to improve their efforts to hire spouses and we advocate on behalf of all military spouses. I am also active in Military Spouse Facebook Groups aimed at hiring initiatives for military spouses. As Head of Warrior and Family Experience at Hope For The Warriors I regularly speak to companies about the value of military spouse and veteran hiring. I work with an amazing team that is responsible for the growth of programs aimed at improving spouse employment and education. I've participated in panel discussions, employee readiness workshops, podcasts, co-writing blogs, local media interviews, and I am active on LinkedIn. I also participate in committee meetings with the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

What do you hope to accomplish with the AFI Military Spouse of the Year® title?
When we first joined the military, I didn’t know anyone in the spouse community, and I didn't understand the path before me. I was fortunate to find my way and blessed to meet spouses who mentored, elevated, and supported the rest of us on our journey. I believe in paying it forward and I want to help other spouse reach their goals. Whether spouses are looking for a job, searching for social and community connections, or need help during the most challenging times, I know the support of the military spouse community moves mountains. It is my goal to continue to serve this community that I love so much. I will continue to join spouse groups, serve as a mentor and friend, advocate for all spouses, and help strengthen our military families. Working alongside fellow spouses, I look forward to helping the next generation of military spouses. We don't know what the future holds but we do know that the military spouse community will thrive because we are dedicated to supporting one another.

Nominations

Erin Lester is a military spouse who activates her experience to help others. For two decades she has leveraged her role as the wife of a Naval officer to support military families around the world with her own volunteer work and as the manager of volunteers for several service member support organizations. From volunteering to greet medivac cases at Naval Base San Diego, to overseeing Red Cross volunteers in three countries while stationed in Spain, to her current job as the Head of Warrior and Family Experience at the national non-profit Hope For The Warriors, Lester has embraced service to military members and their families. Her position with Hope For The Warriors is far reaching and includes employment support, spouse and caregiver scholarships and transition critical support, which fills gaps that many service members experience in transition to civilian life. The mother of two sons says serving military families in time of need is humbling, but an experience she values and loves
- by Kristy Schwartz