Friday, April 2, 2010

For female vets, camp is a place to heal

Sun Valley Adaptive Sports organizes first Women Wounded Warrior program

Express Staff Writer

Retired Army National Guard veteran Vashone Smith, left, enjoyed a day learning to ski at Dollar Mountain with her caregiver, Latrice Mason. Photo by Willy Cook

It was a sunny but cool day at the Sun Valley Inn outdoor pool on Tuesday, March 23, and several women and their significant others were enjoying the warm environs of the heated pool. The women were smiling while conversing with one another and sipping on sodas and ice water. This group of people appeared no different than other Sun Valley visitors, but they were all war veterans and caregivers to war veterans.

Though their injuries were not apparent, the women who attended the first Sun Valley Adaptive Sports Higher Ground Women Wounded Warrior Snowsports Camp from March 22-27 were recovering from traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, blindness and spinal cord injuries.

"Women with PTSD need different counseling than men," said camp attendee Mary McCullough. "We need our voices heard. The ceiling is broken but we are not up there."

McCullough is an Army major who served in Iraq. She suffers from PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, arthritis, short-term memory loss and speech impediments. She and her partner attended the camp traveling from Ohio.

"We are maternal by nature," McCullough said. "I was at the Walter Reed hospital for 15 months and it was not healing. How could you come to a place like Sun Valley and not heal?"

Many of the women who attended the camp suffered from social anxiety, depression, panic attacks and flashbacks. Their caregivers who attended camp with them have had to help their partners with their struggles.

"It was so nice to talk to other caregivers," said McCullough's caregiver, Melissa McCarthy. "We do what we do because they did what they did for us."

The women who attended the Higher Ground Camp took part in a variety of activities, including snowshoeing, skiing and snowboarding. In addition, several dinners and gatherings allowed time to discuss with each other their traumas and lives since their injuries.

"Only a few percent of this war's wounded are women," said Tom Iselin, founder and executive director of Higher Ground. "However, the majority of their injuries are traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. They have different needs than men and this camp provides a 'magical' atmosphere that focuses on the special needs of women. There is a lot of time allocated just for talking and sharing."

The program not only builds physical skills, but it also builds self-confidence and spousal relationships. In addition, the program provides coping strategies to help veterans manage their stress, anxiety, anger, depression and isolation. Attendees take the skills they learned from the camp back to their hometowns and apply them to work, school, family, health, relationships and involvement in their communities.

Army medic veteran Olena Ferguson said she was grateful for the camp and was glad that she was not alone in her suffering.

"It was nice to be with women," Ferguson said. "The camp is a good, healthy process."

Sabina Dana Plasse:

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