OCEANSIDE — Dozens of female veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars since Sept. 11, 2001, attended the Coming Home Project Veteran Retreat at Mission San Luis Rey held Feb. 10 to Feb. 13.
The Coming Home Project provides holistic support services to troops and veterans nationwide. The retreat at Mission San Luis Rey drew female veterans from across the U.S.
Army E7 Sergeant First Class Annie Clark, of Portland, Ore., was one of the women in attendance. She has served 18 years in the National Reserve, National Guard, U.S. Army and U.S. Navy. Eleven of those years she served active duty.
Clark is currently in the Wounded Warrior Program and undergoing medical evaluation to see if she can return to duty.
She was sent to active duty in Iraq injured. A severely sprained back and blown disc she sustained during a military training exercise was misdiagnosed as a minor sprain. “I went over injured and never knew it,” Clark said. “Thirty days later I was in Iraq wondering why these sprains didn’t go away.”
A family emergency leave allowed her to return home and that is when she had the injury looked at again. “My husband was injured on a job,” Clark said.
Her husband’s accident proved fatal.
The trip home allowed Clark the medical attention she needed.
“They didn’t send me back,” Clark said. “They allowed me to go to military medical facilities and find out what was really wrong. Now they’re trying to fix me.”
“Right now I’m going through the Military Medical Review Board,” Clark said. “They’re looking at my physical and mental health to see if I’m fit to continue on. I’m hoping I can serve two more years to pick up my retirement. I’m hoping I can finish.”
The medical injuries were not the only injuries Clark sustained. She also had post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Many of us have PTSD,” Clark said. “There are a variety of stressors. You can be exposed to a lot of combat, fire a M16, be a medic and deal with traumatic injuries and IEDs. There’s PTSD and military sexual trauma.”
Clark’s work as a military history archivist also added the stress of compassion fatigue. Her job was to document significant military events with oral interviews. “As a military history archivist you have chronic exposure to the horror others have to deal with,” Clark said. “It’s a demanding job, but I loved every in of it.”
During the Oceanside retreat, female veterans had the opportunity to share their experiences and learn stress management and wellness practices. Wellness activities included qigong meditation that utilizes movement and breath energy, nature walks, birdin, and equestrian therapy.
“The equestrian therapy that was really, really great,” Clark said. “The food was excellent. The support staff in this retreat was outstanding.”
Activities are structured to help participants connect a sense of self with emotional recognition skills.
“I think it’s important for the military to take these issues seriously,” Clark said. “I can’t tell you how important it is. Female veterans need to be involved in more of these kinds of retreats.”
The all-female retreat allowed women a greater sense of safety.
“Men and females don’t mix with this kind of stuff,” Clark said. “MST (military sexual trauma) is when a male service member or more than one, has done this to a women,” Clark said. “The last thing they need is to be in a mixed gender group with men with PTSD.”
The mission grounds allowed the women a quiet, safe place to reconnect with their sense of self.
“Mission San Luis Rey is away from bases, drilling and women can enjoy nature’s bounty,” Dr. Joseph Bobrow, Coming Home Project founder, said. “The facilitation team is 12 volunteers, all psycho therapists, who have experience with survivor trauma and who are especially interested in female veterans.”
Bobrow emphasized retreats do not include psycho therapy, but focus on support experiences for stress management. “It helps individual veterans rebuild a sense of connection with self,” Bobrow said. “A sense of connection with family and peers has often been broken since service.”
Veterans build strong bonds during the retreat and often stay in touch with each other afterward, Bobrow said. There is also a network of service providers and veteran hospitals that help keep veterans informed about Coming Home Project events.
“I took away positive things I can do to assist me in recovering,” Clark said. “I have some really good tools in my toolbox now to implement in my own life.”
“I wish all women veterans could get in to retreats like this ASAP,” Clark said. “All female veterans need to heal sooner then to wait for years on end.”
The Coming Home Project began in 2007 and has served approximately 1,200 veterans through retreats, and 5,000 veterans through community forums and classes. The nonprofit holds about four retreats a year. Some retreats are geared toward veterans, others are geared to veterans and their families, depending on the area need.
Bobrow, a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst, and Zen Buddhist teacher, formed the Coming Home Project when he saw a discrepancy between the sacrifices veterans made and the services they received.
All troops have a challenge adjusting to daily life when they return home from war. Reservists and Guardsmen have a special challenge because they return to a civilian community. “They transition completely into civilian existence and need to hit the ground running,” Bobrow said.
“When a veteran comes home it’s the responsibility of the family, community — everyone has the responsibility to reconnect,” Bobrow said.
Bobrow’s goal is to eliminate the sense of stigma that asking for help falsely carries. “Post-traumatic stress is not a disorder,” Bobrow said. “It’s a normal reaction to abnormal demands.”