A place of healing

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DAV sponsors women veterans retreat to promote ‘post-traumatic growth’

Through intense therapy and peer support at the retreat, the women discovered life-changing techniques to help overcome many of their most difficult symptoms. The bond among these veterans will continue to provide additional support as they apply what they learned to their everyday lives.

Close to where the historic Appalachian Trail and Shenandoah River cut through northern Virginia lies Boulder Crest Retreat, a 37-acre backdrop of picturesque land dedicated to helping veterans and their families achieve optimal health and wellness.

Here, retired U.S. Army veteran Valerie McIntosh, alongside five women veteran peers, found healing.

“I’d attended retreats before and found useful information,” said McIntosh. “But when I’d get home, I’d be back in the real world again. This time it was different.”

Among many programs designed to help military members, veterans and their families deal with the challenges they face after illness or injury is the Warrior PATHH (Progressive and Alternative Training for Healing Heroes). Warrior PATHH is the nation’s first nonclinical program designed to cultivate and facilitate growth among those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Teaming with Boulder Crest, DAV proudly sponsored its first women veterans Warrior PATHH retreat last winter through the DAV Charitable Service Trust, to help create an environment for participants to comfortably share their experiences and work toward healing.

McIntosh said it was the intimacy of the small-group approach that made such an impact.

“There were only six of us, so when it came time to share or to do an exercise, we were never split up,” said McIntosh. “We were able to really address our experiences, both from the military and our lives before, and discover how small things may have made a huge impact.”

McIntosh, who suffers from traumatic brain injury and PTSD, has been putting on a brave face for a long time—seeming fine on the outside but suffering emotionally. Until now, she believed her situation was normal.

“I had condemned myself to a life of darkness, fighting depression and the feeling of constantly trying to lift myself out of it,” said McIntosh. “I didn’t think it was possible to live another way after all I’ve been through. I learned I wasn’t alone.”

DAV’s 2014 report Women Veterans: The Long Journey Home spotlighted the success the Department of Veterans Affairs has had with retreat programs for women veterans. One recommendation from that report was for the VA and the Department of Defense to develop a pilot program for structured women’s transition support groups to address issues with marriage, deployment, changing roles, child care and living as a dual military family.

“Peer-support groups have proven time and again to be essential to women veterans’ health and well-being,” said National Legislative Director Joy Ilem. “If we can give women veterans the opportunity to experience the growth and healing that comes with this type of program, we should do it.”

The program begins with a seven-day retreat, initiating students into the Warrior PATHH, and delivers the equivalent of 18 months of therapy in seven intensive days of training. Assistant National Legislative Director Shurhonda Love attended the retreat and said she was able to experience life-changing therapy, support and partnership.

From left: Women veterans Seymone Spence, Diana Fritz, Stephanie Driessel, Assistant National Legislative Director Shurhonda Love, Luz Helena and Valerie McIntosh spent seven days together at Boulder Crest. The small group will continue to work together over the next 18 months as part of the post-traumatic growth curriculum and peer support.

“Those seven days changed my life,” said Love. “We learned who we are, what we’re about and how to overcome the unique challenges we face as women veterans. I left the Army 15 years ago—imagine what a difference this program would have made then and imagine what it can do for women just now getting out of the military.”

According to Boulder Crest, all Warrior PATHH instructors have faced similar struggles, and the blended combat veteran and civilian team members leverage their own experiences to guide attendees through the program.

“We are strength-based and solution-focused, we do not believe our combat veterans are broken,” said Suzi Landolphi, senior PATHH guide at Boulder Crest.
“We’ve proudly supported the programs at Boulder Crest for a long time now, and the feedback we’ve received from veterans has been nothing but positive,” said National Voluntary Services Director John Kleindienst, who helps identify participants and organize events.

Congress has also started taking notice of the benefits gained through peer-support programs both inside and outside of the VA. A bill introduced in the House—H.R. 4635—aims to increase the number of women hired as peer counselors for the VA suicide prevention program, to specifically address the special needs of women veterans.

“Women veterans face unique challenges reintegrating in their homes and communities after deployment,” said National Commander Delphine Metcalf-Foster. “They are more likely to be divorced, single parents and lack a social network. They are also more likely to be unemployed and struggle financially, despite higher educational attainment than male peers. Exposure to military sexual trauma and substance abuse disorders make women veterans more prone to homelessness and put them at a higher risk for suicide.”

DAV Resolutions 225 and 245 support the enhancement of services for women veterans, including mental health services and increased use of peer specialists.

“The introduction of a bill that recognizes the need for peer support at the VA is a great step forward,” said Love. “If we can ensure women veterans have the opportunity to learn and heal from one another’s experiences—like through the Boulder Crest experience—we may change the future for the next generation.”