Female veterans heal trauma from the “inside-out’

A group of female veterans came together to face their trauma on August 15th, 2020 in a uniquely creative and honest photo shoot in Des Moines, Iowa.

Tired of running from their trauma, these veterans who collectively represent 80 years of military service, volunteered to bare their souls to the world by being photographed wearing their trauma-related emotions, challenges, successes, and private self-talk on their skin. The photo shoot, aptly called “Inside Out” gave the women the opportunity to share their stories of military trauma, including Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and face their past which has been long-since hidden in the shadows. The event, sponsored by Healing at English River Outfitters (HERO), a non-profit veteran’s organization in Washington, Iowa, was held at West End Salvage. On location, veterans were given a raw and unedited backdrop to pose with words and phrases such as “PTSD,” “survivor,” “underestimated,” “shame,” and “I will turn my wounds into wisdom” scattered across their arms, legs, backs, chests, and faces.

In many cases, each of these woman continue to hear those words and others echoing in their minds decades later. For the first time, many of the women stepped out of the shadows and displayed their inner voices for the world to see. The photographs, done in black and white, along with their personal stories of military trauma have been gathered together and published in a 2021 calendar, which will not only bring awareness to MST and Post-Traumatic Stress, but also to the less than adequate consequences of reporting their experiences to their military superiors.

“Every day, military men and women experience combat-related trauma, military sexual trauma, or both while serving our country,” Bobbi Whitlow, US Air Force Veteran and the Female Veteran Coordinator for HERO stated. “Those experiences and how they are handled within in the military shape a person for the rest of their lives. Many trauma survivors hide themselves behind imaginary masks for decades and try to pretend everything is ok, when in reality, they are broken, suicidal, and lost.”

Bobbi Whitlow,
Female Veteran Coordinator,
Healing at English River Outfitters (HERO)

Katie Espinoza, an Army veteran and models for the project added, “I am normally one to confront my fears, but when it came to my MST, it was never something I did. I hid it and only showed emotions when no one was looking. I was ashamed and didn’t want my friends and family to know. This Inside-Out photo shoot was a difficult decision for me. It made me confront my fears. I was scared, nervous, and anxious…I am so thankful for the project because after five years of hiding, I was finally able to confront it head-on.”

The HERO resort is designed for veterans by veterans and founded in 2008 by Chuck Geertz, a 23-year Marine and Army veteran. Geertz passed away last August, but his mission to provide a memorable outdoor recreational experience for disabled veterans, their families, friends, and supporters continues. HERO recognizes what veterans have contributed to and sacrificed for national freedom. It is the goal at HERO to promote healing and closure for veterans and assist them as they realize their strengths and independence by connecting veterans and their families with organizations that provide a wide variety of activities and opportunities, and provide a sense of community and familiarity, as well as allowing for a healthy readjustment back to civilian life through positive outdoor experiences.

Not only did the photo shoot challenge those female veterans who participated, but also it provided healing and an unspoken understanding between the participants of what it means to be female, disabled, and a veteran of the United States military. The photographs have been incorporated into 2021 calendar, which are available for pre-order beginning November 11, 2020. The money made through calendar sales will help to fund future events and opportunities for veterans provided through the HERO organization, and also to assist with the completion of a new lodge located on the HERO resort property. The lodge will host up to 20 veterans during retreats and activities. During 2020, activities at HERO have included hunting trips to locations such as Texas and Maine, a clay shoot competition, a Wild Game Feed, a river float, as well as other events.

“Despite the challenges of trauma,” stated Whitlow. “Most veterans readily admit that if needed, they would serve our country all over again in an instant. This is why this project is so important. It provided healing and empowerment for veterans in ways that can be very difficult to find.”

Currently, there are approximately 4.3 million disabled veterans within the United States. About a quarter of all military members leave the service with at least one disability. Many veterans experience PTSD, as well as other serious mental health issues from trauma they suffered while serving. Often these mental health challenges are too much for veterans to deal with alone. In 2019, the suicide rate among veterans was 1.5 times higher than the rate of non-veteran adults. Over 6000 veterans have committed suicide each year between 2008 and 2017. HERO hopes to provide the support veterans need to avoid adding to that statistic.

Veterans interested in connecting with HERO can find more information about the organization by visiting englishriveroutfitters.org or calling Cyle Geertz at (319) 330-4541. Pre-orders for the 2021 Inside Out calendar can be taken by emailing Bobbi Whitlow at gypsyjunkmarket@gmail.com. Calendars will also be available for purchase at all upcoming HERO events.

This story originally appeared on the Voice of Muscatine. Read More local stories here.

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