Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Women warriors unwind at Pettit Lake

Higher Ground program helps veterans recuperate in the outdoors

Express Staff Writer

Marine Corps staff Sgt. Delta Evans, left, and Army Sgt. Carla Ward have some laughs Friday at Pettit Lake north of Ketchum. The women joined a group of 12 female veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan for a Higher Ground rehabilitation summer camp.
Express photo by Willy Cook

The changing face of the U.S. military in recent years has brought numerous female soldiers into combat, where they serve and sometimes die alongside their male counterparts.

Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began more than a decade ago, 114 women have died in action in Iraq. In Afghanistan, there have been 14 female casualties. 

Many more women soldiers have returned home with injuries, both visible and invisible to the casual observer. Last week, 12 of those women warriors gathered at Pettit Lake north of Ketchum to enjoy some outdoor recreation, to commiserate and to perhaps work through some of the traumas they share.

“I’m a lot better now than I was when I first came back [from war],” said 41-year-old Juliet Madsen, who was traveling with a group of paramedics in Iraq in 2004 when a roadside bomb blast severely injured her. 

Today Madsen lives with her family, including three kids, in Parker, Colo.

“When I first came back, I could only drive to the store at night when no one was around,” she said. “If the car got to the edge of the roadside and I heard a noise, I would get rattled.”

Madsen walks with a crutch, but also competes in triathlons. Last Friday, she left the crutch ashore while navigating a paddleboard across Pettit Lake under the majestic Sawtooth Mountains. 

For several days, Madsen had been sharing stories and meals with other veterans, recreational therapists, yoga teachers and volunteers associated with Higher Ground, a veterans rehabilitation program that began seven years ago in Ketchum.

“Civilians don’t always have the right tools to understand.”
Juliet Madsen
Army veteran

Higher Ground combines sports, family and coping therapies to restore and rehabilitate men and women of the armed forces who have been severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This program is incredible because they are completely accepting of who you are,” Madsen said. “You also get to hang around with other vets who share the same quirks as you. Civilians don’t always have the right tools to understand. Here I realize I’m not as strange as I thought I was.”

Higher Ground is an offshoot of Sun Valley Adaptive Sports. The privately funded nonprofit organization is free to both male and female veterans and hosts winter and summer camps throughout the year.

Erin Rheinschild, Sun Valley Adaptive Sports’ director, said some women at Pettit Lake were still undergoing reintegration into civilian society after months of “24/7 hyper-vigilance and adrenaline.”

“They have been in fear of suicide bombers coming into their cafeterias, or roadside bombs. There is some rewiring going on,” Rheinschild said.

“It was so quiet. There were no bombs.”
Carla Ward
Army veteran

After a Zumba dance class, and some stretching exercises offered by Hailey resident Amy Clifford, a group of veterans took to the lake in wetsuits and bright pink shower caps. Some were learning to swim for the first time.

Marine Corps staff Sgt. Delta Evans and Army Sgt. Carla Ward met at the Tuskegee Veterans Administration Medical Center in Tuskeegee, Ala. Both are from Auburn, Ala.

On Thursday, they took a raft trip down the Salmon River. That night they enjoyed a ride under the stars across Pettit Lake, on a boat belonging to Ketchum resident and Higher Ground supporter Bill Norris.

“When they turned off the boat it was scary at first, just being out there. It was so quiet. There were no bombs,” said Ward, who returned from military duty overseas more recently than the others.

Evans went into combat in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. She returned last week to Idaho after her first Higher Ground camp last year. She had enjoyed a week spent with “lovely people.”

“We started a fire and roasted marshmallows. We’re from Alabama. Who does that in Alabama?” she asked with a hearty laugh.

Ketchum dentist Jerry Mitchell is one of many volunteers who spend time and provide resources to the Higher Ground program. He kayaked around swimmers on Friday, providing safety support and moral encouragement.

Mitchell said the veterans are encouraged during their stay to set personal goals, which Higher Ground staff will monitor over a three-year follow-up period, sometimes providing resources, such as sporting equipment or Zumba lessons.

Mitchell said the goals can include engaging more with family members, getting outside more to exercise or mentoring someone in their home community to do the same.

Lt. Col. Donna Van Deveer, 57, served as a military police officer in Germany before being deployed to Iraq. She swam unaided across the lake under the watchful guidance of swimming instructor Karen Morrison.

After drying off and talking for an hour with her newfound friends behind a log cabin, Van Deveer said the week-long program had been a positive experience.

“This is something I will take back with me,” she said. “I isolate myself at home. Here, I met a lot of good friends.” 

Tony Evans:

Army veteran Juliet Madsen paddles on Pettit Lake with Sun Valley Adaptive Sports’ Director Erin Rheinschild on Friday.
Express photo by Willy Cook

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