A new way to serve
A Navy veteran is using her military experience to advocate for veterans, women and minorities.
Enlisting in the military was an easy choice for Chanel VanHook ― sort of.
Growing up in a family of nine children to parents who were active duty Marines, structure was familiar to VanHook. But when she graduated from high school, she didn’t know what was next.
“I come from a family where you don’t blow in the wind,” she recalled. “They were like, if you cannot decide, we’re going to a recruiter’s office.”
With that, VanHook explored options before enlisting in the United States Navy, where she served as an aviation electronics technician and subject-matter expert on communications, navigation and weapons systems on the F/A-18F Super Hornets and EA-18 Growlers for 11 years before completing her service in 2019. In that time, she was deployed four times and earned six Navy Achievement Medals, or NAMs. The first came when her squadron was deployed to the South China Sea, patrolling and protecting U.S. interests in the region.
“I was a troubleshooter, working on the flight deck 14-16 hours a day,” VanHook said. “In naval aviation, electronics run everything, so we had one of the most important jobs. The day I got my first NAM, a spot NAM, I discovered two discrepancies that had those pilots flown, it could have led to a loss of life.”
VanHook continued working, but someone took note and she was called to the ready room.
“It’s hot, I have all my gear on and I’m annoyed because I have a flight schedule,” recalled VanHook, noting that her chief made it clear that this wasn’t a request. “I get there and there are all the pilots and these high-ranking officers.”
The commanding officer spoke, stating that every day, their lives were in the hands of some of the crew's youngest members. “Our lives depend on you to send us in safe aircraft,’ he continued. Lately, they’d had a few mishaps, “but one person had gone above and beyond.”
“I just did my job, but it was the highlight of my career,” she said.
Over time, she took on more roles, including as a curriculum developer and instructor, in which she taught more than 2,500 hours on Navy aircraft. She also spent six years as a victim advocate for the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response team, volunteering as a first responder and advocate to assist individuals who had been sexually assaulted. She spent more than 3,000 hours dedicated to that role, earning her the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal.
VanHook said her last few years had been challenging, noting that the nation’s political discord seeped into the Navy.
“It opened this divide in the military. You saw ranks starting to self-segregate. I had discrimination against me, and I was in a place where it was toxic and I was ultimately diagnosed with depression as a result,” she said. Her final role in the Navy as an equal opportunity specialist gave her insights into some of the challenges she experienced.
“I had an ah-ha moment.”
That ah-ha moment led her to Texas Woman’s University.
Using her voice
“To be in a place where you’re in the majority was rare for me. Honestly, the last thing I wanted was to be around a lot of men,” she said, adding that while taking a government class with Jennifer Danley-Scott, PhD, a lecturer in TWU’s Department of History and Political Science, she rediscovered her passion for advocacy.
“I knew I didn’t want to be an aircraft mechanic for the rest of my life. My passion isn’t fixing aircraft. It’s advocacy, educating people and learning. I had an idea, and it was targeting inequality and being a voice for minorities, women and veterans,” said VanHook.
Now a junior in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in political science with an emphasis in legal studies, VanHook is using her voice in ways she didn’t feel were possible before — and drawing on her experience as a female veteran.
“TWU could not have been an easier transition. I don’t think I could have picked a better school to attend fresh out of the military,” she said. “TWU is a welcoming, safe space from a veteran’s perspective. The class ratios are good so you get a personalized relationship with instructors.”
“And Alex is really responsive,” she added, referring to Alex Alvarado, who retired from the U.S. Army and is now the Veteran Education Benefits Certifying Official at TWU.
Among her efforts, she has taken on roles as a Texas Civic Ambassador with the New Politics Forum, the first of two TWU students ever chosen; as an ambassador for the Public Leadership Education Network (PLEN), which helps women nationwide become policymaking leaders; and as a student assistant with the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy, leading its social media initiatives to increase the number of women in advocacy, public policy and political leadership roles. The center, housed within the Jane Nelson Institute for Women’s Leadership, is a resource for women across the state.
She also co-founded an effort, Black the Vote Texas, with Christine Mompoint and Jeffrey Clemmons, students from other universities. Their mission has been helping African Americans become politically engaged.
She said there’s much to overcome.
“There are systemic barriers and suppression throughout the political process,” said VanHook. “Fear-based de-incentivizing is real. Some people don’t vote because they’ve never voted and they don’t want to look dumb at the polls. Some people don’t realize that elections aren’t just every four years.”
Page last updated 5:00 PM, February 17, 2022