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Puerto Rico Women Warriors Find Strength in Each Other

Bethzaida Cabrera does not need to be in the limelight. She is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who prefers diligent teamwork and is happy to get the job done backstage.

Read this story in the May issue of Homeland Magazine

Nevertheless, she’s part of a group of veterans helping Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) ensure women warriors stay connected with each other. And she is leading the way from her native Puerto Rico.

“Word is spreading about the Peer Support group for women veterans in Puerto Rico,” Bethzaida said. Beth leads the WWP group meetings once a month. For now, they are mostly virtual, which has made the gatherings more accessible.

Battling Isolation
It is not rare to hear that women veterans are feeling isolated. They are among the most isolated service members upon returning to civilian life. Through the Women Warriors Initiative research, WWP found that 80% reported feelings of loneliness. Being a female veteran in the mainland U.S. comes with its share of isolation and lack of recognition, but female veterans in Puerto Rico experience compounded challenges.

According to a study commissioned by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 4,330 female veterans lived in Puerto Rico as of September 2019, and geography has a lot to do with health challenges among this group of veterans. Compared to their U.S. counterparts, women veterans in Puerto Rico have a higher risk for pain-related disorders, chronic diseases like diabetes, and a host of reproductive health issues. They have higher use of VA primary care compared to women in the mainland U.S.

Bethzaida leads the WWP Puerto Rico female peer support group with Army veteran Elizabeth Martínez González. They have connected with other women veterans in Puerto Rico and have collaborated with the local VA, WWP, and The Mission Continues to find ways to engage women warriors.

“At the last meeting, we really felt connected,” Bethzaida said. “I could tell the women were happy to be able to relax for even a few minutes.”

The monthly Peer Support meeting is informal, but almost every one begins with a shared activity, followed by time to chat and share concerns with the group. Bethzaida wondered if connecting virtually would diminish interaction, but instead, she saw women opening up more.

“It really has worked better than I expected, and in an organic way,” Bethzaida said. “It is actually more interactive. Each person controls her mic and environment, and now that many of us have children at home around the clock, it’s easier to connect this way.”

The group of 15 to 20 female veterans has embraced a veteran who connects from Virginia, where she now resides. “She is from Puerto Rico and is all by herself in Virginia dealing with a medical situation,” Bethzaida said. “We serve as her backup family. It’s very rewarding to see that women who didn’t have the resources to connect with like-minded veterans are now able to feel they are not alone.”

“Even years after separating from the military, you might think that everyone has already gone through this healing process, but many haven’t had a chance to open up until now,” Bethzaida added.

Bethzaida’s Healing Journey
Bethzaida herself has been on a healing journey during the last few years, spurred by a Soldier Ride® event WWP invited her to be part of in Cincinnati. She immediately connected with another female warrior in the bike ride.

“At that point, I was disconnected from everyone as a veteran, and I felt suppressed,” Bethzaida recalled. “Soldier Ride opened my eyes to everything that was available to me the entire time. I met another warrior from Puerto Rico who actually lives close to me on the island and who told me about her own journey through Wounded Warrior Project, including Project Odyssey.”

Bethzaida participated in a Project Odyssey®, WWP’s 12-week mental health program that uses adventure-based learning to help warriors manage and overcome their invisible wounds and enhance their resiliency skills. She said it changed her life. “I was able to open up about things I had kept inside,” Bethzaida said. “I realized I needed more help, and Wounded Warrior Project was there to connect me to additional support.”

Bethzaida was eventually able to attend an outpatient intensive treatment through WWP’s Warrior Care Network® in Boston. This WWP program connects wounded veterans and their families with world-class mental health care through four partner academic medical centers. “At that moment, my life partner and I had plans to get married, and I knew I needed to do this to better prepare for a new life with him.”

Bethzaida’s healing journey gave her the tools to accomplish her personal and professional goals, and she didn’t forget about the female warriors who are emerging from their own journeys. Two years into her involvement with WWP, including connection events in Puerto Rico, she had the opportunity to participate in Peer Support training. She was ready to embark on a new mission.

“The universe conspires to make things happen,” Bethzaida said. From the first meeting with just four female warriors, the group has grown every month.

Elizabeth and Bethzaida work together to secure guest speakers and activities that range from art projects to meditation.

“Women feel they have a seat at the table,” Elizabeth said. “It’s a process, and the group is getting good exposure through our contacts at the VA clinic. More female veterans are asking, ‘How do I join?’”

Both Elizabeth and Bethzaida noted more openness in female-only groups, which provide a safe space to share personal experiences with other women.

WWP’s female-only Peer Support groups have expanded in U.S. cities where WWP serves large numbers of female veterans, and the groups have grown by leaps and bounds during the past year.

In 2020, WWP grew from four female Peer Support groups in the U.S. to 12. And 43% of virtual participants in all activities were female warriors.

“We needed this,” Elizabeth said. “We do okay in a co-ed group, but now that we have our own space, we talk about different things. Women feel freer to talk about medical and personal issues among other women.”

Learn about connecting with a WWP women’s Peer Support group.

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.