Female Peer Support Empowers ‘Shut Down’ Veteran to Shine
Military life for a woman is different than it is for a man. There are often few women — or only one woman — in a unit or company.
“Being a woman in the military not only affected me as a soldier but affected and influenced who I am as a woman now,” said Army veteran Tina Waggener.
Learn more about resources for women veterans.
Tina served her country as an Apache armament and electrical system repairer. The entirety of her service was overseas except for six weeks when she went to school. In her unit, there were four women and about 350 men at any given time and zero women in her company.
She felt she experienced sexism in the military and faced challenges such as sexual harassment, doing double the work for half of the recognition, and perceived favoritism.
When she transitioned into civilian life, she faced more difficulty and described that time as “a lot tougher than expected. I found it difficult to even speak to civilians at times because it was like my language had changed.”
Tina explained that what was normal in military conversations left civilians shocked. It was particularly hard for her to connect with civilian women because they would often reply to her experiences with things such as, “That’s not really normal,” or “Are you OK?” or “That’s crazy!”
She later learned she had suffered a traumatic brain injury that was never treated while in the military. Tina came to believe that it hindered her ability to recognize social cues and manage her social filter.
“As a result of these instances and failed integration with simple interactions, I shut down,” Tina said. “I stopped telling people that I ever served and wanted to distance myself from all military affiliations. Shame came over me, and it was confusing because of how our society views veterans: wanting to thank veterans for their service but seeming to be disconnected.”
Reconnecting with Her Identity
Years later, Tina had begun to feel like she was missing a huge part of her identity by cutting out the veteran aspect. She wanted to reconnect somehow. She saw a flyer for a veterans’ whitewater rafting trip and signed up.
“I was the only woman; not a surprise,” Tina commented. “But I was also not surprised about how the trip made me feel. Being back with veterans, although strangers, we punched through waves together and all paddled in sync. We had each other’s backs. For me, it was my ‘ah-ha’ moment where I realized I was missing that camaraderie. Being with veterans provides that sense of teamwork and ‘no person left behind.’
“I knew right then that being a veteran is part of who I am, and to ignore any piece of who I am or what has helped shape who I am would cause me to never feel whole.”
Still, Tina found herself in a cycle of trauma where she would manage her past experiences successfully, but then spiral out of control about once a year. She went through in-patient treatment for three months, where she heard about Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP).
Her first time experiencing female veteran support was through Project Odyssey®, a 12-week mental health program that uses adventure-based learning to help warriors manage and overcome their invisible wounds, enhance resiliency, and live productive and fulfilling lives. She found the experience solidified everything she learned in treatment. She then connected with a co-ed WWP veterans Peer Support group.
“Our Spokane Peer Support group saved my life,” Tina said.
“The community of support is like no other. I feel safe, and we all take care of each other. When one person needs to hang drywall but is too broken to do it alone, we help. When someone needs help laying tile, one person might show up with a trowel, another with a wet saw, and another ‘to supervise’ and talk, when in reality we know they are just there because they might need to be around their brothers and sisters.”
WWP’s Peer Support groups help connect warriors and give them opportunities to support one another.
Finding Her Purpose
“Wounded Warrior Project events, volunteer opportunities, and other warriors not only changed my life, but saved my life by giving me a sense of purpose.”
In 2019, four years after connecting with WWP, Tina stepped up to lead the Spokane Peer Support group. She has worked to make the group more inclusive and increase attendance.
“I appreciate the opportunity to support both women and men,” Tina said. “This co-ed group has immense value in providing a safe space, especially for women with military sexual trauma. It gives those women a way to experience male presence and energy in a safe way.”
Tina feels passionately about getting other women to find the same support she has experienced. But she kept hearing the same stories from other women: “I have no one to watch my kids,” or “I want to attend events, but I don’t want to be the only female,” or “I wish there were more women in my area to talk to or do things with,” which is a challenge in rural areas of the Northwest.
Although the pandemic increased isolation, it provided a new opportunity to connect. Tina now leads a women-only virtual Peer Support group for the entire western U.S.
“Although I don’t think virtual connection can replace in-person groups, I do know it has reached a much-needed demographic of mothers, caregivers, and rural women,” Tina said. “The pandemic slowed me down enough to be able to create and foster not only my connection to other women, but connection for other warriors and connection to my number one value in life: service.”
Making a Difference
Tina said she has seen how WWP makes a difference in women’s lives. “I witnessed one warrior who just looked so sad,” Tina said. “She couldn't even introduce herself without crying. One year later, she had the opportunity to do a Project Odyssey where I served as a Peer Support Leader, and she was literally unrecognizable. Her face was completely changed: bright, smiling, excited, and full of joy. What an incredible transformation to be able to witness. Simply inspiring.
“The magic that happens on a Project Odyssey is so special,” Tina said. “It’s about reminding women they are still those badass women they felt like they lost. We remember the feeling when we got out of basic training, like we could mentally and physically do anything. Now we have to remember we are still those same women, but we just have to get there a little differently now.”
Tina maintains a positive attitude and finds purpose in creating a supportive community with resources for women veterans. She is inspired by the connection Peer Support groups foster between warriors, whether it’s through sharing tools, recipes, encouraging words, or beautiful pictures between meetings.
“Helping Wounded Warrior Project facilitate Peer Support groups is a small thing I can do to make a difference in someone else’s life,” Tina said. “I know my Peer Support group in Spokane saved mine.”
Contact: Rachel Bolles — Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.760.2425
About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.