Most teenagers don’t have a game plan or sense of direction at 18, but Brandi Todaro wasn’t like most teenagers. She bought into the values offered by her school’s JROTC program, and just five days after her 17th birthday, she joined the Army National Guard in Oklahoma. She made that decision over 16 years ago. It was a commitment that shaped her into who she is today: a strong, confident woman making a difference in countless service members’ lives and their families’ lives.

Brandi enlisted as a linguist because she heard stories from her male friends about their struggles while deployed in Iraq regarding enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). Some of these “TTPs” involved women, such as the enemy hiding weapons and contraband on females, knowing male service members couldn’t search them due to their culture and religion. It’s a simple problem, and Brandi wanted to be a part of the solution. The Armed Forces are only comprised of 16% women, so she wanted to bridge that gap and help fill that void overseas. Brandi didn’t get to utilize the skills she learned as a linguist until much later, but they would come into play.

Staff Sergeant Brandi Robertson

Brandi spent seven years in the National Guard, transferred to the Army Reserve, and then reclassed as a civil affairs specialist. She described this role well. “In a way, we ‘social work’ the battlefield. Civil affairs specialists used to be known as the ‘hearts and minds’ people.” She says people joke about the men and women in her role “digging wells and handing out soccer balls” while building goodwill with communities, but the job is a lot deeper and more complex than that. Over her career, she has earned two master’s degrees in criminal justice and social work. Hope For The Warriors helped her with that second degree by awarding her a scholarship. “Mental health was definitely something I had always wanted to get into.” She has used her degrees wisely, currently working as a readjustment counselor at the Vet Center in Fayetteville, NC. That’s where she provides counseling for combat veterans, veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma, National Guard members or reservists who have responded to humanitarian disasters, and service members struggling with adjusting to civilian life.

Mental health has become even more important in Brandi’s life after her first deployment in 2023, where she spent time in Jordan and Syria. It was a profound experience for Brandi, who learned a lot about herself, the Army, and the world. “Humanity is very complex and so much more than you realize when you live in the America bubble,” she says. “If you’ve never lived outside of the U.S., you don’t understand all the nuances that culture plays in the rest of the world.”

Staff Sergeant Brandi Robertson in a helicopterShe returned home from deployment on October 7th, 2023. Does that date sound familiar? It should because that’s when Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel. Leaving on that date was overwhelming because she knew she had brothers and sisters still in harm’s way, and it wasn’t long after she left that a drone strike killed three service members in Jordan.

Brandi’s challenges upon returning centered around the anxiety of being around others in uniform or even the concept of being in a uniform right after she returned. She took a few months off work to decompress and readjust. “I didn’t want to focus on being around other people at that time because I needed to get my head right,” she explained. “You’re processing a whole lot of thoughts and emotions. I was coming off a nine-month deployment where I was stressed, high-strung, and angry while I was gone. I had to figure out how to come back into an environment where those stressors didn’t exist, but I was still feeling the anger.”

Over the last 16 years, she has seen a lot of things and experienced the positives and negatives of being a female in the military. “The biggest challenges have always been the continued perception that women are problematic, they’re less capable, they’re weaker,” she says. She has unfortunately faced these stereotypes personally, and they’ve become more prevalent as she has risen in rank. “What I’ve seen and experienced in a leadership role as a woman is that when you take on more responsibility, there are more people asking particular questions of you that they aren’t asking the men. It’s almost [like they’re] challenging your competence and how you got there,” she says. “[They’re questioning] are you actually the right person for this?”

She has seen women pitted against each other, vying for roles, working even harder to show they’re just as capable as the men. She says her advice for any female in the military is to advocate for themselves. “We’re not screaming for equality over here; we’re screaming for equity and the right to the same opportunities with the acknowledgment that we are, in so many ways, different than our male counterparts. So, my advice? I would tell them to embrace who and what they are as women because what we are is more than enough to serve this country and make its military better and more capable than an all-male force.”

Staff Sergeant Brandi Robertson Saluting.There have been a lot of positives as well. As a leader, she has had the opportunity to mentor and change the stigma of being a female service member. “There is no better feeling than being able to influence young lives positively. You help them achieve some degree of self-actualization, where they’re realizing their full potential and the things they’re capable of.”

Celebrating Women Veterans Recognition Day on June 12, Brandi is grateful for the opportunities she has been given and for the women who paved the way to make those opportunities available. “The role of the American female service member has changed dramatically throughout our nation’s history. We went from only serving in support roles where women weren’t even getting mandatory firearms training until 1975, to now being able to deploy to combat zones and even have combat arms jobs,” she says. “This day is about remembering and just being grateful to those who spearheaded that because there are so many opportunities I just would not have had if it weren’t for the women that came before me.”

We want to celebrate Brandi and every other female veteran on Women Veterans Recognition Day. Thank you for your service and for continuing to pave the way for future generations.