Women veterans group offers a special place for healing

By Donna Schillaci
Legal News

Local attorney Zaneta Adams learned the hard way just how difficult it can be for female veterans when they end their military service and return to civilian life.

And she says her own experience and observations are what eventually led her to create WINC (Women in Combat): For All Women Veterans, a non-profit organization dedicated to revitalizing female veterans by helping with their mental, physical, spiritual, emotional, and legal needs. After working diligently for many years to achieve these goals without a real home, the group celebrated the grand opening of its official office at the Muskegon County Veterans Center last week.

Adams’ own story is a powerful one. She spent eight years serving our country in the U.S. Army National Guard, Army Reserve, and Active Duty. In 2005, after suffering a severe back injury when she fell from a truck while training for a deployment in Iraq, Adams was honorably discharged, but she was in a wheelchair facing years of surgery and recovery with the possibility of never walking again.

Adams fought through severe depression and overcame her injuries, partially due to the inspiration she got from other veterans she met who had lost limbs or were badly burned, but still persevered. She attended many events that promoted mental and physical healing for veterans. But she was keenly aware of one thing… almost all of the other injured veterans were men.

While men outnumber women six to one in military service, there are still a substantial number of women veterans in the United States today — more than 2 million. This includes 46,000 in the state of Michigan and an estimated 13,000 in Muskegon County alone. Adams says people are always surprised when they learn these numbers are so high.

According to Adams, a woman’s return from military service is quite different than a man’s. While men are often lauded as military heroes and congratulated for their service, the expectation is that female veterans will go back to their “normal” life… taking care of the kids, cleaning the house, getting a job... without much fanfare or difficulties.

And often women don’t have the spousal support they need upon leaving the service. Adams has found that while many wives stand by their husbands even during a very difficult transition to civilian life, a high percentage of women veterans end up getting divorced when they go through troubled times.

Adams says she’s very lucky this wasn’t the case for her, as she’s enjoyed the continued support of her husband, Joseph, during their 18-year marriage. Returning home to her five kids (including two sets of twins) upon her discharge in 2005, she and Joseph worked through her difficult time together, and eventually relocated from Illinois to Muskegon Township, where they owned property.

Despite everything she endured due to her military accident, Adams says she still had to fight for all the veterans benefits she deserved. That’s partially why she decided to pursue her law degree in 2011, so she could help other veterans with their legal struggles. She concentrated on constitutional and administrative law at Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School, and was instrumental in forming the Veterans Legal Assistance Project there, as well as winning many awards from Cooley for her work.

Adams received her law degree with distinction in 2014, the same year she was honored with an award from the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan. Today, she is a general practice litigator for the Muskegon firm Williams Hughes, working primarily on municipal cases and veterans claims and appeals.

The origin of WINC was Adams’ chance meetings with other injured women from around the country at events sponsored by groups like Challenge Aspen and the Wounded Warriors Project. The women realized the activities were more geared to the male participants, emphasizing competition and toughness, while they were eager to spend time talking about their lives and sharing their problems to facilitate their healing process. Eventually, these women, along with some Muskegon residents, came together to form WINC. While the group formed in 2009 to serve only combat injured female veterans, in 2014 they realized that all women needed to be represented, nurtured, and cared for.  Four women from throughout the country complete the nine-member board. 

The female veterans of WINC spend time together talking, relaxing, sharing, and enjoying a variety of activities at their periodic meet-ups. One of the group’s primary vehicles for healing has been its annual retreat at Camp Courage in Grant. This year’s retreat included a creative writing workshop, a team cooking contest, and a trust-building exercise with a “surprise box” to conclude the event. There is always plenty of scheduled downtime to allow the women to talk together or reflect on their own.

Adams said they found that of this year’s 17 retreat participants from around the U.S., 90% were disabled and half had experienced some type of sexual trauma during their military service. This represents another issue that primarily affects military women and is not addressed by most veterans groups, with only four trauma centers servicing the whole country, according to Adams. She explained that sexual trauma, ranging from harassment to assault, is a very different problem for women in the military, since they are so outnumbered by men and have to serve night and day with them “side by side in the foxhole,” as she says.

WINC also offers scholarships to women veterans and their children (based on certain criteria) that do not have access to a military educational benefit. The group serves as a resource for legal and health-related referrals through local partners like HealthWest and the Muskegon County Department of Veterans Affairs, and national service agencies.

Sometimes referrals aren’t the answer, though, and the work becomes very personal for Adams. Like the time a few weeks ago when a fellow veteran called her late at night to say she had reached the end of her rope. Adams knew the woman needed the help of a friend she trusted, not a mental health referral or anonymous call to the Suicide Helpline. She talked with her until the crisis had passed, followed up with her, and continued to make sure she was going to be okay. “I”ve sent the police to a woman’s house to make sure she’s all right,” Adams said, “even when it’s in another state.”

WINC is always on the move, and has many new programs and initiatives in the works. In addition to the special tribute he presented to WINC last Thursday, State Repre-

sentative Terry Sabo worked with the organization on a bill he’ll introduce in January to establish June 15 as “2,000,000 Strong and Rising Women Veterans Day of Awareness” in Michigan. Adams and Hadley hope to bring a group of 100+ local women to Lansing when the bill is voted on.

Other upcoming WINC events include the first Female MST (Military Sexual Trauma) Peer Support Group meetings, on Tuesday and Thursdays beginning Nov. 16, and the first annual Women Veterans Empowerment Awards and Fundraising Dinner, tentatively set for April 26 at the Folkert Community Hub. Adams is also working with Challenge America on the December launch of the Military Sisterhood Initiative, a national peer support network with the main purpose of combatting female veteran suicide.

All WINC programs and events are funded by private donations, including the expenses for the annual retreat which they hope to expand to several sessions. The group’s major sponsors are Shape Corporation, Dr. Michael and Christine Morykwas, Challenge America, and Williams Hughes, which Adams says has been very supportive of her efforts.

In the end, Adams believes it all pays off. She recently spoke to a woman who had come to a WINC gathering for the first time a few months ago, and credits them with keeping her alive and well today. “That’s what it’s all about,” Adams said.

“Sometimes the worst experience can turn out to be the best thing that could happen to you,” she adds. “I think this is what was meant to be.”

Anyone interested in making a tax-deductible donation to this very deserving organization can do so at www.wincforall.com.

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