Veterans on a mission

Evans School graduate Joy Turner, ’18, and student Andrew Peppler, ’19, encountered all kinds of political viewpoints during their Army service. Now they’re bringing a range of veteran voices to the public with their podcast, Speak Freely.

On a crisp fall day in 2014, U.S. Army veteran Andrew Peppler, ’19, went canvassing in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. Seeing Peppler approach one house, a neighbor yelled from behind his fence, “You’d better not be out here for a Democrat!”

Peppler smiled and said that yes, he was canvassing for a Democrat.

Speak Freely podcast session

Andrew Peppler will graduate this year with master’s degrees from the Evans School and the Foster School.

“All those Obamanoids in Seattle,” said the man. “Are you one of them?”

“Well,” said Peppler, “I wouldn’t call myself an Obamanoid. I just got back from Afghanistan.”

The neighbor’s demeanor changed. He unlocked his gate, came out to shake Peppler’s hand and thanked him for his service. Then a surprising thing happened: The two men had a respectful conversation about politics.

Expanding the conversation

Peppler and fellow Army veteran Joy Turner, ’18, who met as graduate students at the UW’s Evans School of Public Policy & Governance, are no strangers to political discourse. During their time in the service, they got used to having blunt and sometimes heated discussions with fellow soldiers. But they also got used to setting all that aside for a shared mission and sense of duty.

“Those who serve have signed on the dotted line,” says Peppler. “We’ve all said, ‘I will sacrifice my health and my life for this concept of America.’”

Speak Freely podcast session

Evans School alumna Joy Turner works as a business analyst at the Seattle Public Schools.

Now the duo is inspiring others to engage in civil political discourse through their veteran-focused podcast, Speak Freely.

Turner and Peppler first crossed paths at the UW in October 2016, and they soon bonded over their shared veteran status. It was the home stretch to the presidential election, and both of them were upset by how polarized the country seemed to be growing.

“Joy and I have a lot of friends from across the political spectrum,” says Peppler. “So we asked ourselves, ‘What is our place in this conversation, and what can we do?’”

They knew that, even as the public’s trust in many American institutions has wavered, military veterans and their viewpoints are still held in high regard. At the same time, says Peppler, “You rarely get to hear our range of opinions.”

“We really wanted to bring all discussions to the table, to help the general public understand the full spectrum of veterans,” says Turner.

Speaking freely

Turner as an undergraduate at West Point

Turner earned her undergraduate degree from West Point and served as a military police officer in the U.S. Army.

With that goal in mind, Turner and Peppler hatched the idea for a podcast that would attempt to bridge the divide by featuring veterans with diverse political views.

With the help of a grant from the Husky Seed Fund and discretionary funding from the Evans School, they purchased recording equipment and set aside funds for marketing and operational costs — and Speak Freely was born.

Now in its second season, the podcast has covered a range of pressing topics with a variety of guests. Turner and Peppler have talked civic engagement with a former fellow at the Charles Koch Foundation, analyzed this year’s State of the Union address with a Democratic political candidate, and explored national security with an FBI retiree. Even when they disagree with each other, the podcast’s guests all care deeply about their country — and they’re all veterans.

Peppler on patrol in Afghanistan

Peppler (left) served in Afghanistan as a U.S. Army infantry officer.

For the two hosts, coupling their Evans School education with their work on Speak Freely has marked a transition in their personal and professional growth. “This was our chance to move toward the actual making of policy, as opposed to just implementing it through our military service,” says Turner.

Both she and Peppler view policymaking as a democratic act that benefits from healthy, genuine debate — not from getting trapped in an ideological bubble and ignoring other perspectives.

“We wanted to help show that just because you don’t agree with something, it’s not ‘fake news,’” says Turner. “We view Speak Freely as an anti-Twitter.”

Forward momentum

Since she and Peppler launched the podcast, Turner has graduated with her master’s in public administration and now works as a business analyst for college and career readiness at the Seattle Public Schools. Peppler will graduate this June with the same degree, plus an MBA from the Foster School of Business, and hopes to help bring ethically developed products to market.

Speak Freely’s future is uncertain, but both Turner and Peppler hope to continue leveraging the connections they’ve made through the podcast. They may hand over the reins to other UW students, or they may form their own media nonprofit to keep the conversation going.

But above all, says Turner, “We want to be part of the movement to engage young folks to be active in their communities, politics and the policymaking process. The change we talk about is dependent on young people being involved.”

Speak Freely studio editing

“Ultimately, you do have to put politics aside,” says Peppler. “I served under Bush, and I served under Obama.”

Speak Freely studio editing

“Most Americans hold veterans in very high regard and are willing to listen, regardless of political allegiance,” says Turner.

Start listening

Get to know Speak Freely by starting with a few standout episodes. Then visit the show’s archive for more — and stay tuned for the final episode of season two in May.

Season 1, episode 1

Racial Equity in America

Army veteran Monique Brown, a veterans outreach specialist at El Centro de la Raza in Seattle, discusses racial inequity, protest and the connection between discourse and violence.

Play episode

Season 1, episode 4

Civic Engagement

Marine Corps veteran Mark Bonicillo, ’14, a former fellow at the Charles Koch Foundation and intern with the Heritage Foundation, talks about being in the political minority in Seattle.

Play episode

Season 2, episode 3

The Real State of the Union

Marine Corps veteran Chris Thobaben, who ran for Washington state representative in Vancouver, shares his thoughts on the 2019 State of the Union address.

Play episode