Women have served in the military for over 200 years, yet they were not fully recognized as veterans until 1977. Indeed it was not until this spring that women pilots were honored by Congress for their service in WWII where they flew fighters, bombers and transport planes as part of the then Army Air Force.
Nearly 20 percent of America’s troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are women. They fly planes and helicopters, drive trucks and other equipment along mine-infested highways and place their lives at risk in equal measure to the men; all this in wars that have the highest rate of post-traumatic stress and suicide of any war since such data has been collected. They have served with distinction in Vietnam, Korea, and both World Wars. They wear the scars and medals to prove it. Women have faced not only all the same challenges and outcomes of service as men, including living with severe deformities and long separations from loved ones, but also the added challenges of potential rape and sexual harassment.
Nearly 78 percent of women serving in the Gulf War zone have reported experiencing sexual harassment and approximately 30 percent rape, MST (Military Sexual Trauma). The Gulf Wars have resulted in the highest rate of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicides, currently at a rate of 18 per week (over 950 attempts per month) with women soldier’s PTSD and divorce rate over twice that of the men.
One of the best and most respected organizations nation-wide in support of women veterans is the Tri-Lakes based Creative Healing Connections, which presents retreats for women active duty and veterans, and is seeking to host one of the first retreats for women spouses this fall.
Healing Connections was founded 13 years ago to present retreats for women with cancer and other chronic diseases (it has two retreats upcoming at Great Camp Sagamore in September sponsored, in part, by the Adirondack Medical Center Foundation). 4 years ago they decided to expand their services to include special programs for women veterans. This past Wednesday 22 women, 3 of whom drove in from Chicago, celebrated the conclusion of their most recent retreat held at Wiawka Holiday House on Lake George, the oldest continually operating retreat for women in the country. The women attending served in Korea forward including active duty, and in the Navy, Army, Air Force and National Guard.
“Our goal is to create a safe space in which the women could share whatever stories they wished to share and, by doing that, create connections,” said storyteller Fran Yardley of Saranac Lake, a co-founder of Creative Healing Connections and the leader of the retreats for women veterans.
“It is just beautiful here,” said Ocatavia, one of three from Chicago. “Everyone was so accommodating. The workshops were wonderful. I wish the retreat could have been longer. This program lets women veterans know that there is hope. I don’t have any words to describe it. This place makes you connect with yourself. There is no stress, no pressure. It really is a healing place. Our VA medical center wanted to know about this program. We plan to tell them to send a van of people next year. We definitely plan to be back.”
“When was the last time you woke up and your door had been unlocked and you felt safe,” said QTara, who came up from New York City.
“Never, never before,” said Octavia.
“This place is a 10 every day,” said QTara. “You don’t have to worry about cooking or your family or a job. You feel safe here. It is a healing place. It is so relaxing.”
“I came here looking for knowledge, laughs and friendship,” said Connie, who served in the Army 1977 to 79 as wheeled vehicle mechanic. “People come here and say I can’t write a story or a song, but the teachers get around that. They get each of us to write a bit of it. I have been here three times and each time is different. I tell the women in my VA, you gotta come. I tell them that there other things out there. I am almost off all my meds because of this place. I have learned healing touch. People arrive here as strangers and leave as family.”
“I got a little bit of comedy for a change,” said Chris. “We remembered things from the service and made a song out of it.”
“I met some friends I had not seen in ten years,” said Shereen, “Not since we worked together at the World Trade Center during 9-11. This place is about connections. It is about being able to share my experience with someone else who understands my story. I will go home recharged.”
“Each one, reach one, that’s our motto for the retreat,” said Octavia.
“This place gives me a peace of mind knowing that there are other women out there that I can connect with,” said Colleen. “I can’t tell you just how magical the staff is. They are incredible. Fran said to us, ‘You can just say no.’ Can you imagine what that means? Can you imagine being in a place where there are no locks and you feel safe? I found peace here. I cried so much today. It was the very first time since I got out of the service that I got a chance to sit down and talk with others who had similar experiences that I had.”
“A lot of women veterans just disappear into the woodwork and don’t realize that there are other women out there feeling the same things they do,” said Kathy Dunlap, a Navy veteran.
“Here we became one,” said QTara.
Creative Healing Connections is currently planning to triple the number of women veteran’s retreats for next year, and is working with Homeward Bound Adirondacks to hopefully present program this fall for spouses of active duty and veteran servicemen as well as an expanded slate of services next year. For more information: www.creeativehealingconnections.org or contact their director, Martha Spear at 518-390-3899.