Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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A Rare Place of Healing For Women Warriors

KRIV-TV ch.26 (FOX)
Thursday, 23 Feb 2012, 10:21 PM CST
 

A Rare Place of Healing For Women Warriors 
A Rare Place of Healing For Women Warriors 

HOUSTON - With a two-year-old in joyful tow, at a playground nestled within the Heights, Katarina Fagering could pose for a portrait of middle-class normalcy and make it work.

But what you can't see is what lies within: un-faded recollection of an existence where rules have long given way to fear, anger, chaos, and blood.

For U.S. Marine Captain Katarina Fagering, the stress and the torment of two combat tours hitched a ride home and in far too many ways, haunt her still.
"Every time you go outside the wire, which I did quite a bit, you know, it’s open game," Fagering said.

Her mission: face to face engagement with Iraqi women. Some proved friendly, but most were not. Each encounter carried with it the lethal risk of a suicide bomb, hidden beneath a bhurka, or a roadside bomb around the next corner.

"It would be like us just sitting here and thinking, okay, in the next 30 seconds, am I going to die?" she said.

Every moment of every day deployed, she said the load grew more oppressive.

The fallout back home: relief at survival, followed by a string of reckless acts, desperate thoughts, and the kind of sadness some feel compelled to cease with suicide.

"Yeah I did. I wasn't able to hold things in anymore," Fagering said, her voice choking with emotion.

But she took a different path that led her to Houston's DeBakey VA Medical Center and a potentially life-preserving chance to face what she'd endured with the help of other women.

For 25 days, they were fully protected from a world in which their lives were falling apart. That's the fundamental safety net offered by the Women's Inpatient Specialty Environment of Recovery.

"I always say, we are not locking you in; we are locking them out. We find many times, by the time women to get to us, they have never told anyone what has happened to them," WISER's staff psychologist Deleene Menefee said.

In wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the front was mostly indistinguishable from the rear, nearly 200,000 women warriors functioned in what therapists call "full-time crisis mode." It's believed a full 20 percent are now struggling with post-traumatic stress.

"That hopelessness that things won't change, that I'm always going to be living in fear or that I'm always going to be unable to have relationships. That hopelessness can really spiral out of control," Dr. Wendy Leopoulos, WISER's psychiatrist, said.

"Doing nothing keeps you stuck, stuck where you are and really has a poor prognosis in terms of recovery," Leopoulos added.

There's a reason the rate of PTSD among female vets is double that of men. In today's military, women are not just fighting the enemy. They are all too frequently fending off harassment and sexual assault from the same warriors with whom they serve.

When you are in a war zone with a unit and you are relying on them to keep you alive, you can't make enemies, right?" Fagering said. "You were either a dike or a slut and there was no in between, so you were either putting out or you were a lesbian.”

"When people get stuck in that betrayal, they stop functioning. We teach them to stop letting that experience define them," WISER's Menafee said.
One of many lessons for survival learned within WISER's walls. A degree of healing that's helped wounded warriors, like Katarina Fagering, make sense of a world once drowning in hurt.

"When you are 24/7 in an inpatient program, there's no hiding. They see who you are," Fagering said.

These days, she has traded her automatic carbine for a camera and leadership in a combat zone for the full-time care of her little boy, Finnegan.

Her health and happiness, poetry, and pictures are a living message to the thousands just like her who served and still struggle.

"Don't even wait,” she said to other veterans. “Why live another day like that?"

For those seeking relief, WISER offers refuge. A place and a path to mend what's broken when mommy comes marching home. Those seeking more information can contact WISER at 713-794-7561.