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Female Veterans Work to Change Bodies, Minds, and Perspectives

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Surrounding Meosha Thomas are groups of sweating, exhausted veterans. They are being pushed to their breaking point as instructors and trainers circle, shouting encouragement to drive them forward mentally and physically. As she recounts her experiences at a recent Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) event, it’s easy to become lost in her story. The unrestrained passion in her voice recounts her experiences at the WWP sponsored fitness expo in vivid detail.

It’s a scene straight out of Meosha’s Navy boot camp days, except that the faces around her look nothing like they did in those days. They certainly look nothing like the stereotypical Hollywood boot camp, made famous by movies like Full Metal Jacket or Jarhead.

Meosha pauses before presenting a challenge to that long-established image.

“I think we need to ask, ‘What does a disabled veteran look like?’” Meosha queries. “When people think of a veteran, they typically don’t picture a woman, and when they imagine a wounded veteran, it’s definitely not a female.”
At the EXOS facility at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, Meohsa is surrounded entirely by women who have been wounded in combat. WWP staff and trainers work hard to meet the wounded service women where they are their recovery. Meosha reflects that the injuries are as diverse and unique as the women in attendance.

“A few older women attended,” she said thoughtfully. “It didn’t matter; the workouts we were doing were exactly what we all needed. The staff paid special attention to our disabilities and needs. They focused on our ‘can do’s,’ instead of our ‘cant’s’ -- the focusing on what we are capable of, right here and right now, in our new normal.” 

Though the training is tough, there is a sense of healing during the workout that lifted Meosha’s spirits. Side by side with people who understand one another, Meosha understands this is her new normal.

“I saw a lot of sweating faces once everyone started moving,” says Meosha. She sighs, while half-laughing. “We hadn’t moved like that since boot camp. It might sound like a complaint, but it really isn’t. After military life, especially when wounded, we can get trapped in thoughts of ‘I can’t do this.’ This event wouldn’t let us fall into that mindset. It felt good to be surrounded by people who are on equal ground and understand the struggle. Despite our injuries, there are many of us who want to go back to what it was like in the military. Whenever we see glimpses of that life, our new normal, like I had at this event, it’s very encouraging.”

For Meosha, there’s another, lingering struggle she faces daily. Her tone of voice changes almost immediately as she talks about the work she does in her community.

“I own and operate a non-profit that helps homeless, female veterans,” Meosha says solemnly. “For a long time, my experience was that there’s no support available for female veterans. WWP’s hosting of events specifically for women sends the message that there is something out there for us.”

The WWP event is a good start, Meosha explains, because she and many other female veterans enjoy being with their peers, those they have common bonds and shared experiences with. In her view, there’s a unique healing this female-specific support can generate. 

“Even though it’s a male-dominated military, it’s not a male-only military,” she says. “When you get a diverse group of women together, you gain access to a range of experiences unlike any other. You get to see firsthand that even if we have seen combat, we’re not all the same. We all may have visible or invisible injuries, with different ways of coping. This event sent so many messages for outsiders, and hopefully gives other women who may be afraid to self-identify as combat veterans or injured service women warriors, the confidence to come forward. I now have a sense of camaraderie and sisterhood that I’ve missed from my days inside the military and since joining civilian life again.”

As she walked away from the fitness expo, Meosha’s body and outlook had changed. Her previous experience with personal training left her feeling discouraged, and without a clear path forward in her physical recovery. Most significantly, it took a toll on her mentally.

“Before this, I had difficulty finding any help and it left me thinking, ‘what can I do?’” Meosha says with an edge of frustration in her voice. “My injury is in my leg, so any sort of movement or cardio is difficult. The trainers I went to before had a hard time working with me, and I found it extremely frustrating to be told I can’t do more. The team at WWP showed me modifications that I can make to get the same benefit as regular training. From the beginning, they wanted me to have the confidence and support I need to train at home, the gym, or wherever I am comfortable, to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The entire expo was about changing mindsets as much as changing our bodies; fighting against what we can’t do, and finding what we can do.”

Like all who attended the expo, Meosha received access to an online workout platform to help her stay active and healthy. When asked about her biggest highlight from the expo, newly forged relationships seem to take first place.

“It was extremely physical, and I’m still sore, but the training expo let me build bonds with the women I now call friends,” Meosha says happily. “We struggled and pushed through it together. Even after the workouts, the event created this atmosphere where it was easy to get connected with other wounded veterans. We continue to encourage each other on our health and wellness journeys, and we have the chance to explore who we are as wounded female veterans. I look at my friends and the girls I was sweating with, women with physical injuries, service dogs, and invisible wounds, and know this is what a female veteran looks like.”

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