Q+A with Jessica Pizzuli, Army Veterinarian + Public Health Advocate

Dr. Jessica Pizzuli is the definition of multifaceted. She is a veterinarian, public health advocate, and previously, a commanding officer in the Army Reserves; a veterinarian who leads and owns a relief veterinary service for local hospitals in Cleveland, Ohio; an avid lover of Crossfit; a world traveler; a loving wife and owner of numerous cats and a dog named Cheese; and an amateur surfer. Raised by a single mother until she was 10 years old, Jessica developed a strong sense of who she was and exactly what she wanted from life at an early age: to become a veterinarian and to feed her sense of adventure. These two aspirations ultimately led to her decision to join the Army and have consequently shaped her life in an unconventional, totally badass way. Jessica is the ultimate Muse, as she has constantly displayed determination, perseverance, courage, and a strong inner knowledge and self-awareness that she uses to guide her through some of life’s toughest times.

The Basics

  • Age: 34
  • Location: Cleveland, OH
  • Education: Wittenberg University + The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine
  • Field of Interest: Veterinary Medicine
  • What Inspired You Today? I did Crossfit today.  It inspires me to push myself physically, even when I’m really sore or tired or busy.  I’m surrounded by a community of supportive people there and I always leave feeling tired but empowered.
  • What’s Your Favorite Thing About Yourself? I’m really good with cats.  People tell me all the time that their cat has never behaved better at the vet’s office.  I take pride in this because it can be so stressful for owners to bring their cats to the vet, which is a barrier to the cat receiving proper vet care.

Questions + Answers

You knew you wanted to become a veterinarian since you were a little girl. how hard was it to accomplish this goal? What were your major obstacles in achieving this goal and how did you overcome them?

I decided to become a veterinarian sometime when I was in grade school.  I can’t tell you the age or the moment when I decided.  I always loved animals, and it grew from that.

Becoming a vet was my singular focus through high school and college.  Holding myself to the necessary high standards was work and sacrifice.  I gave up free time to volunteer and work with animals.  When other kids were hanging out and having fun, I was home studying so that I had the grades that I needed for admission.  At times, it was frustrating and disappointing to watch my friends drink and smoke and party while I was working.  I was not “cool” – I was considered an “academic.”  However, it helped that I loved my college and the people around me.  I loved the subjects I was learning and the professors who taught them.  If you’re passionate about something, the work you put into it is not a sacrifice.  I always thought of it as a labor of love.

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For me, the hardest part of becoming a veterinarian was vet school itself.  It was a different world from the small, liberal arts environment I was used to at Wittenberg, and it was a lot more work.  At times it seemed almost unbearable.  There is a lot of stress that we put on ourselves to be perfect, and at some point you have to deal with that need for perfection realistically – no one is perfect.  Learning this was a process.  I don’t think I fully appreciated it until I was older and out of vet school.  I don’t have the same expectations of myself as I did 15 years ago.  I forgive myself more and I accept both my strengths and my foibles with more grace.

Your family was very concerned about your decision to join the military, but you joined the Army despite their reservations.  What factors did you consider when making the decision and how do you think it has affected the way people view you?

The idea of being in the military has always fascinated me.  When I was young, I saw how the military experiences of my uncles had shaped them and given them a sense of pride and identity.  In vet school at OSU, I learned about the Army Veterinary Corps and was instantly intrigued.  It took a lot of thought, but in the back of my mind, I always knew it was what I really wanted.  Here is what I considered.

I didn’t expect employment to be an issue until I tried to find a job after vet school.  I quickly learned that it would be hard to find employment as an associate veterinarian if I was in the Reserves.  One hospital owner actually revoked a job offer when he found out I wanted to join the military.  This was probably the most difficult and disappointing hurdle for me.  It took an additional three years before I found a solution and became self-employed.

Secondly, I had a crippling amount of student loans from 8 years of schooling, so finances also played a role.  I was able to receive student loan reimbursement for a majority of my loans by joining during wartime.  I also considered all the time I would be away from home.  The military requires regular travel and time away, and sometimes even deployments.  It was hard to picture what this would be like without any frame of reference or previous military experiences and so I had to take a leap of faith.  And now, traveling for the military is one of my favorite parts of the job.

Altogether, the most critical factor that I considered was an intangible and unexplainable feeling that this was where I needed to be.  I had to stop over-thinking and over-analyzing and stop being afraid of all the unknowns involved.  Because at the end of the day, despite all the other factors, I knew I this would be a regret for the rest of my life if I did not join.

I did eventually get deployed to Kuwait, where I was responsible for the care of the Military Working Dogs (MWDs). I also filled an important public health role that required my team and I to travel to all of the food facilities in Kuwait and the surrounding countries to inspect the facilities and ensure that all of the food being delivered to the military bases were of good quality for the soldiers.

Since I joined the military, the people around me have all been very supportive. It would be very hard to continue my career in the military without the ongoing support of my family, friends, and colleagues.  I think there’s a sense of mystique to the military because it is such a different culture with such unique experiences.  I also think some people are surprised.  They don’t expect veterinarians to be in the military, let alone a woman who is five feet tall.

Physically, you are quite petite, but you were commander of your Army unit.  Where did you get the confidence to feel like you could command your unit, something many people might have thought was an impossible goal? How did your lack of physical size (and being a woman) affect your experience in the military?

I actually forget most of the time that I am smaller than most people.  I’m sure that many of my actions and choices flow from this self-delusion of being bigger than I actually am.  What concerned me much more than my size and gender was the fact that I had less than three years in the military before becoming a company commander.

I have been lucky enough to have mentors in the military that have both inspired me and believed in me. My veterinary unit commander, COL Bosworth, and the First Sergeant, SSG Nadolski, encouraged me to apply when I was initially interested in the company command position.  The guidance and trust that they gave me, and continue to give me, along with countless others along the way, have shaped who I am as a leader and as a person. Fortunately, there are so many wonderful people in the military.  I have a strong network of colleagues, mentors, and friends that I constantly turn to for support and advice.  I think when someone is willing to reach out to those around them and be vulnerable, you can learn and grow so much more than if you tried to do it on your own.

Being a woman has definitely affected my leadership style.  As a company commander, my first priority was to take care of my soldiers.  I may have been considered a bit softer than a conventional company commander, but I never minded. I will continue to give out goodbye cards to soldiers who are leaving, hand out oranges after a physical fitness test, and in general, pay attention to how my soldiers are feeling. When soldiers are stable and healthy, they are more capable of being fully present and engaged, which is better for everyone.

It hasn’t always been easy though, especially in the first couple years when I was still adjusting.  I have experienced sexual harassment multiple times and in various ways.  It can be very demoralizing and embarrassing.  But I am a stronger person because I have to be.  By growing a strong support network and becoming more familiar with army culture, these instances have become less common.  I do not let them define my experiences or who I am.

You seem to be very adventurous.  What are some of your favorite adventures and why?

My husband and I have gone to Costa Rica to go surfing annually for the past 3 years.  Surfing is never something I thought I would be able to do or thought about seriously before going there.  I can’t say that I’m good at it, but I love that we do something so completely different from our normal lives and that we do it together.

Jessi surfing 1

My whole family went to Strasbourg, France last Christmas to visit my sister who was studying there.  With our busy lives, it seems like we are seldom all together at the same time so it was a great experience to share with each other.  We had lost our grandmother only weeks before. The death of a loved one always reinforces the importance of family and togetherness, as it reminds us that our time here is finite.

My favorite Army trip was to Plum Island, NY to study foreign animal diseases.  The class and the island were fascinating, and I was surrounded by a wonderful class of Army veterinarians.  In our spare time during the course, we toured wineries, ate dinner together every night, and wrote songs together for the end of the class celebration.  It was the perfection combination of people, location, and learning. I am very fortunate to have a rare opportunity to study disease in a location where most people will never be allowed to go to.

You were raised by a single mother until you were 10.  How did that affect you and your attitude towards what women can, and cannot, do?

My mother is a very strong and independent woman. She never let being a single mother stop her from getting an education or becoming a successful business woman. From when I was young, she emphasized the importance of education and learning. She also made sure I was always surrounded by family (including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins) because she worked and traveled a lot and she realized the importance of that support system. I was lucky to grow up surrounded by strong women. I always knew my mother could do anything she wanted, and I grew up believing the same thing about myself because of that. By not giving up even when things are difficult or even painful, and by keeping your goals fixed firmly in your mind, these obstacles can be overcome with enough time, energy, and thoughtfulness.

What advice would you give to young women considering entering the armed forces?

The most important thing when making any major decision like joining the military is to follow your gut.  If this is something you want to do, for whatever reason, then don’t let fear stop you.  Work until you find a way and ignore the naysayers.  It’s going to be hard.  You are agreeing to join a completely different culture with its own language and its own rules, and one that is often male-dominated.  Being tough doesn’t mean you’re not afraid.  Being tough means that you seek out experiences where you know you will be afraid or uncomfortable because you know in the end you will be stronger and wiser and more confident for it.

Who Inspires You?

Kendra Williams – She is a veterinary technician at Macedonia Veterinary Hospital where I work several times a month.  She is energetic, intelligent, loving to all those around her, and loves Crossfit.  She is one of the reasons I started doing Crossfit.

Danielle Carey – She is a veterinarian one year out of vet school.  She loves traveling, rock-climbing and trying new things.  She is great with people and has a natural sense of empathy.

Melissa Schmitt – She is a research nurse at the Cleveland office of Veteran Affairs.  She is passionate about her job.  She is also an avid runner, including marathons and half-marathons.

+ are you inspired by someone who took the “unconventional” route to achieving their dreams? Tell us who we should feature next!
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