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Warrior Sisters: PVA's first WE Served retreat empowered and connected America's women veterans with disabilities.

Army veteran Ipo Sandy Valdez wasn't going to let the long journey from Honolulu to the mountains of Crested Butte, Colo., get in the way of being part of Paralyzed Veterans of America's (PVA) first WE Served (Women Empowered Through Service) retreat for women veterans with disabilities held Oct. 3-6.

The PVA Bay Area-Western Chapter member and former combat medic, who has a traumatic brain injury and sustained a T12 level incomplete spinal-cord injury (SCI) after contracting meningitis in Korea in 2009, wanted to attend an event that was more tailored to women veterans' issues. After a challenging, nearly 24-hour trip to Colorado, which included multiple flights and a short van ride, Valdez deemed it all worth it.

"It's really empowering. Everybody's stories of resilience and what they've overcome is refreshing," she says. "You get the genuine feelings of how people are feeling, how they've dealt with their overall emotions towards their injuries or illnesses."

For about 40 women veterans like Valdez who attended from all over the country, the all expenses-paid event included educational discussions on comprehensive wellness, finances, education and vocation, as well as a WE Pamper evening of hairstyling, makeup, manicures and massages, a 1980s-themed WE Party and chances to try adaptive yoga, rock climbing and off-road handcycling with the help of volunteers from the Adaptive Sports Center in Crested Butte.

"I don't know any women who have spinal-cord injuries in Hawaii, so it's really just trying to [learn how to] advocate for myself, to my friends, my family and whoever I come across, people that are curious about what's happened and really how to face adversity," Valdez says.

More importantly, the event provided a safe place for the women to show their physical and emotional scars and an opportunity to share lots of laughter, tears and a bond of sisterhood many had never experienced.

Everyone Is Welcome

PVA National Vice President Tammy Jones, who is also co-chair of PVA's Anita Bloom Women Veterans Health Committee, says the event's goals were to unite America's "warrior sisters" to let them know they're not alone and to give them resources.

"As a woman with a disability and even a veteran, you start to feel isolated and you don't know how to overcome your shell. And so, by empowering our ladies with just a little bit of confidence or a little bit of strength, they're going to go out and find their answers," Jones says. "They've all served by choice. They volunteered to join the military, and so they have strength in them, and we just have to help them find it again."

But planning the event was no easy task. From applying for a grant from the Craig H. Neilson Foundation to figuring out travel logistics to get participants, caregivers and support staff into someplace as remote as Crested Butte, the retreat was over a year in the making.

PVA's organizing team developed a list of PVA members and women from other veterans service organizations, including the American Legion, Wounded Warrior Project and Disabled American Veterans, who they believed could most benefit from the experience. Attendees were then picked in a lottery.

"Some of us have spinal-cord injuries, some of us have spinal-cord disease, and some of us have injuries that aren't visible. We want everyone to feel welcome," Jones says.

Several mentors were also chosen to attend to give advice or lend an ear if any of the women had feelings they needed to talk about throughout the weekend.

"This first annual event has been really impactful for our women here," says Jen Purser, PVA's senior associate director of sports and recreation. "We didn't know quite how impactful it was going to be until we started seeing their interactions and how supportive they were. But this is a program that any veteran with a disability, whether silent or physical, that they're able to attend, and now they'll have a group of almost 40 women who they can reach out to that can also help guide them through their process."

Purser says having the event in a somewhat secluded location like Crested Butte allowed PVA staff to dig deep into what women's programs are needed.

"I think the importance of things like this is that we grow from it and we do even bigger and better things to help support our women veterans for years down the road," Purser says.

Lessons Learned

Despite the travel challenges, PVA Southeastern Chapter member Arlesure "Fay" Smith says she felt fortunate and humbled to be part of the inaugural group.

The Army veteran and Covington, Ga., resident sustained an incomplete C2-C7 and T1-T4 level quadriplegic SCI in 1988 after falling off her top bunk bed in her sleep.

"First of all, just having the feeling that someone cares has made a world of difference," Smith says. "Meeting other women that have disabilities from different ranges, to see the smiles and to hear the adversities they've overcome and how resilient they have been in this process, it's like I can't give up."

Smith says she enjoyed learning about stress management, whole health and PVA's PAVE (Paving Access for Veterans Employment) program.

"I've been able to be transparent, and that has been, for me, a really good thing because a spinal-cord injury, with my family, they love me, but they don't understand," Smith says. "They don't understand a traumatic brain injury. But we can use language and acronyms here, and everybody knows what you're talking about, so the conversation has been very refreshing. No one has to explain anything. It's like, 'I don't know you well, but I know what you're talking about,' and we're able to connect, and I don't see a lot of people putting on airs anymore. We realize that doesn't serve us for where we are now."

The event also served to gather feedback on women's health care within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) system, as well as on any issues that PVA needs to address on Capitol Hill.

"Our issues are jointly across women veterans and also one of the other factors we wanted to take out of it was to get their view of VA health care, because being a big advocate for VA health care is important for us in PVA," Jones says. "So if we could get a wider swath of women veterans together, we could learn a better picture of VA health care, where improvements are needed and where the positives are so we could highlight those sides of it."

To help address the topic of women veterans' health care, the first four workshops focused on medical information, including one session about the role of decision-making in a person's health, facilitated by Rebecca Coffin, PhD, RN, PVA's associate director of medical services.

Coffin says her main goal as a presenter was to give the women some tools they could use.

"Everybody has health concerns and issues they need to follow up on, and so the focus of mine was to just give them some greater insight into knowing how to make decisions with their health care provider, that it shouldn't be a one-way conversation, that it should be shared dialogue, and just empower them to own their health care," Coffin says.

Valdez says her biggest takeaway was how to self-advocate.

"Things are difficult, and as long as you push to get your answers, you have to voice your opinions and make sure that you're heard to get the attention and the medical needs answered," Valdez says.

Paying It Forward

Jones says teaching the women how to effectively assert themselves is exactly what the entire retreat was about.

She says they plan to make it an annual event, although it won't always be held in Crested Butte. While they want to limit the attendance to 50, they hope to reach as many women as they can, provided they can find the right sponsorships.

"We think the small, 50-person venue keeps it intimate and comfortable to where some are more comfortable opening up in a smaller setting," Jones says. "If we can go twice a year in different parts of the country where we can reach more women veterans, then that would be good, too."

Purser says she'd like to incorporate more introductory adaptive sport programs in future retreats, as well.

While many of the session topics were broad, Purser says they hoped the women would draw a greater sense of independence from the presentations.

"What we wanted is for these women to get this information, see these presentations and then go share it with whoever they needed to and then use it in their lives," Purser says. "So if they're bringing it to their children or their husband or whoever, they're leading that pack. They're the ones being able to teach somebody else."

Jones says there are about 2 million women veterans in the country, and that number is going to grow, so it's important for those women to have a platform to transition comfortably and to have accessible VA services and facilities that are free from harassment and sexual trauma. In her closing remarks, she called upon the attendees to follow in her tracks, to volunteer and continue to advocate for themselves and future women veterans.

"Warrior sisters, we are here. We are America's women veterans, so let's take care of each other and make the world better for our ladies in the future," Jones says. "Remember your value and own it. If we learned anything this weekend, it's the value of taking care of ourselves and giving back. Get out there, get involved. Roll up, step up, however you can do it, voice up."

For information about WE Served or PVA's Anita Bloom Women Veterans Health Committee, email pvawomen@pva.org.

Caption: About 40 women veterans participated in Paralyzed Veterans of America's first WE Served (Women Empowered Through Service) retreat in Crested Butte, Colo., in early October.

Caption: Ipo Sandy Valdez

Caption: WE Served attendees, including Paralyzed Veterans of America National Vice President Tammy Jones, seated, got decked out for the 1980s-themed WE Party.

Caption: WE Served women veterans enjoy a morning roll and stroll with Adaptive Sports Center volunteers.

Caption: Attendees had the opportunity to try adaptive sports, including off-road handcycling.

Caption: Attendees unwind at the 1980s-themed WE Party after a day of informational workshops.

Caption: Arlesure "Fay" Smith found the conversations at WE Served refreshing.

Caption: Women veterans received an introduction to adaptive indoor rock climbing at the Adaptive Sports Center in Crested Butte, Colo.

Caption: The WE Pamper evening included massages, makeup and eyebrow waxing, among other activities.
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Author:Martin, Brittany
Publication:PN - Paraplegia News
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1U8CO
Date:Jan 1, 2020
Words:1767
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