Photo courtesy of Service Women's Action Network

Veteran works to heal and empower service women after own combat experience

August 16, 2018 - 12:31 pm
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By Antonieta Rico

For former Army Capt. Wella Jay, there was no returning to normal after her deployment to Afghanistan. After working alongside Marine Special Operations Teams (MSOT) as a Cultural Support Team member, the bureaucracy of garrison life grated. Paperwork and PowerPoint slides did not compare to conducting medical missions and collecting information in remote Afghan villages. And what's more, her experiences in Afghanistan, being there during firefights, raids, and other combat operations, had left a mark on her that few people around her understood.

When Wella deployed she went alone from her unit and was paired with another woman as her teammate. In Afghanistan, she and her CST teammate worked with three different MARSOC teams and one Army Operational Detachment-A (ODA) team.  They conducted medical clinics and went on combat operations where they would gather information as requested by their teams. She said it was a very empowering experience as a woman to be on the frontlines of the war, a place that women were supposedly banned from.  She enjoyed the challenge of proving she had a place and was value-added in a male-dominated combat environment.

It was perhaps the trail she was blazing in Afghanistan that also contributed to her having a hard time transitioning back to her unit when she redeployed. There was no ceremony where family members awaited, there weren't the familiar faces of her fellow soldiers in her unit. Her deployment award was perfunctorily presented, handed over to her in a hallway in a building in Fort Bragg, N.C., after which she was briskly bid 'good luck.' She had deployed alone and, like most of her fellow CSTs, when she returned to her unit she returned alone.

Back at her regular unit, where she was a medical logistician, she found herself surrounded by people who didn't understand the CST experience and didn't understand her exasperation with having to return to routine administrative duties.  

"When you deploy your priorities shift," she said. The things that mattered to her now were those that involved life and death, everything else seemed unimportant. "I could not get back into the mindset of having to do paperwork or go to unnecessary meetings," she said. " I did not see the value in my work. "

She stopped talking about her deployment, people didn't understand and trying to explain or answer their well-meaning but tactless questions frustrated her. In fact, she said that after her return, she always felt angry.  

 "What frustrated me most is that people were under the impression that, because I'm a woman, I couldn’t have served on the front lines," she said. She recounts having a random high-ranking male service member stop her in the hallway of Tripler Army Medical Center, where she worked, and tell her: "Hey Captain, are you sure you're wearing the right combat patch? You don’t look like the right fit for that." 

Photo courtesy of Service Women's Action Network

She was wearing the combat patch she earned working with Special Operations forces during her deployment.

“Had I been a male Soldier, that would not have happened," she said.

On top of the constant anger, she also had trouble sleeping. She felt alone. And she struggled with extreme feelings of guilt from her work as a CST.

"I felt like I hurt more people with my work than actually help them," she said. "I felt that on both sides people were dying unnecessarily."

She found herself turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking and risky behavior, "always looking for the next adrenaline rush." But she resisted getting help. Especially as a woman, she felt she wasn't worthy of help, that other Soldiers, combat arms Soldiers, were the ones that truly deserved it.

That she herself would minimize her service is not surprising considering that in the case of CSTs, military leaders made concerted efforts to downplay CST member's role in combat (after all at the time the CST program was started, military leaders were trying to discreetly get around the ground combat exclusion policy, which was still in effect). And during their training, the CST members were ingrained with the mantra that they weren't to see themselves as one of the 'operators' (Wella herself makes it a point to say she was just serving in a support role). However, that distinction the military was so adamant in making publicly made zero difference for the CSTs that were killed alongside the special operations troops they were supposedly not in combat within Afghanistan, or for the close to 170 women who have been killed overseas during and in support of Iraq and Afghanistan operations.

Regardless of their sacrifice, the invalidation of women's service is constant in the military community, and the first time Wella found validation of her own experiences was when a civilian organization, unsupported by the military, hosted a workshop to gather CST members, listen to their stories and learn from their experiences as women in combat.  

It was at the CST workshop, hosted by Women In International Security (WIIS), that Wella felt she had a safe environment to talk and where she learned that she wasn't alone. In fact, her fellow CSTs were also struggling. After the workshop, she began working to get fellow CSTs, and eventually other women veterans, the help they needed to process their combat and traumatic experiences. She volunteers at the Service Women's Action Network as a healing program coordinator to connect service women to healing retreats where they learned alternative healing techniques (meditation, yoga, equine therapy, long-distance hiking, etc.) as a means of coping with trauma.

"Wella has been a devoted and selfless advocate to military women, both while she was on active duty and since she became a veteran," said retired Army colonel Ellen Haring, who first organized the CST workshop for WIIS.  

Wella worked to put together a retreat for fellow CSTs at Boulder Crest, which she also attended, and where she learned transcendental meditation (TM), a coping tool she said she uses daily.

Photo courtesy of Service Women's Action Network

"It put all my broken pieces back together," she said. "I feel my life was saved by going there."

Wella currently lives in Alaska and plans to continue connecting veterans to alternative methods of healing and finding post traumatic growth by working with her local VA to bring information on alternative therapies to veterans in Alaska.

She said that when she learned transcendental meditation she felt empowered to heal herself, which is important to her as a woman.  "TM is something I can do for myself, no man or woman can do it for me," she said.

"Being in control of my own healing journey helped strengthen my faith in my own abilities and gave me a sense of control, during a time when I felt like I had none at all" she said.

She also hopes to continue her work empowering women by becoming a nurse-midwife."Birth is where most women learn how incredibly powerful they are by bringing life into this world," she said. “I want to support women during that pivotal part of their life.” As women, whether it be in the military or the civilian world, we are constantly being told that we are 'not enough' she said. "I am so tired of that. Women are incredibly strong, powerful and beautiful in their very own way. 'Strength' should not be defined by or compared to that of a man. Men do not set the standard for women, we do."

In collaboration with the Service Women’s Action Network, we are featuring an inspiring woman veteran each month.

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