A Veteran’s Healing Path — One Step at a Time

By Brian Smith

For a long time, Yvonne was “spiraling downhill.”

Days after being deployed to Bala Murghab, Afghanistan on a re-mission from Iraq, one of her fellow combat nurses was killed by a member of the Afghan National Army in an act of all-too-common “Blue on Green” violence.

“He was actually our first case inside our operating room,” she said. “Because I survived is why I push myself today.”

At the time, the 18-year Army veteran was shaken.

Three weeks later, a mortar landed six feet away. The weight of the two incidents plunged her into a mental and emotional chaos she still struggles to cope with.

Back home, her life quickly was dominated by medical appointments and dealing with the Veteran’s Administration. It wasn’t the space she needed to heal, she said.

“I wanted to find a group of my peers that understood the struggles I’m going through,” she said, fighting back tears.

Then she found No Barriers Soldiers’ Tug McGraw Virginia Women’s Retreat. There, she was immersed in an environment free of the things that had kept her from mending.Yvonne 2

“It allowed me to go and push myself to my new limits and that’s what I like,” she said. “For me, safety is a big thing and it gave me a safe environment, everything was taken care of. You could share your story if you wanted to and it was at your own pace. As you are hiking, or whatever, you are dealing with yourself and your own limits.”

She found herself in a space free of judgment, filled with safety, surrounded by fellow female veterans across a wide range of ages, personality types and experiences.

“We were a great mix,” she said. “One (fellow veteran) was covered in tattoos and at first, because I’m a nurse and good at assessing, you think, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is going to be difficult.’ But the ones you thought that would be the most difficult to communicate with, that’s the one that I still keep in touch with.”

That experience — and later participating in No Barriers’ Outdoor Classic in North Carolina — gave her the tools to keep going, she said. The friends she’s made keep her “connected to the world” and remind her of how far she’s come, she said.Yvonne 3

“I’ll never be the person I was when I got injured. But now I’m only getting better,” she said.

Yvonne and her husband, who is also her full-time caregiver, went on a hike at the Outdoor Classic. That helped Yvonne to see the healing power of nature her husband, who hiked the Appalachian Trail while she was undergoing months of treatment at a brain injury center, knew well.

“This really opened my eyes to his passion,” she said of her No Barriers experiences. “We always joke that I go to the psychologist for my therapy, he goes hiking or to nature.”

Since returning, the couple has been going on walks three times a week, which has helped Yvonne with her injuries and, step-by-step, strengthened their relationship.

“If I didn’t have these programs, I wouldn’t have been doing as well as I have been doing,” she said. “Before I go out, I don’t think I’m doing too well. I come back and realize that with these small steps I’m getting better.”