LAKE GEORGE - More than 20 years after she completed her service in the U.S. Army, Colleen Burdick says she's still haunted by some of the things she experienced.
"I suffered for a long time with nightmares and I still get them," said Burdick, who served in the Army and the Army Reserves from 1979 and 1986. "I was in the post-Vietnam era, basically between Vietnam and the first Gulf War, at a time when women were trying to make their voices known in the military. It was difficult."
Burdick said she kept her experiences bottled up for years until she decided to participate in a retreat designed specifically for women veterans, held earlier this month in Lake George.
Leah Marino, one of 20 women who participated in the second annual Adirondack Arts and Reintegration Retreat for Women Veterans earlier this month, looks out over Lake George from Wiawaka Holiday House, where the retreat took place.
(Photo — Fran Yardley)
"It's been a long time since I've been able to really let go and feel comfortable in a situation where I can express my feelings," she said. "I'm not ready to talk about the specifics, but the retreat afforded me the ability to talk and commune with those who I have a lot in common with. It allowed me to begin a healing process that's a long time coming."
Burdick was one of 20 women who took part in the second annual Adirondack Arts and Reintegration Retreat for Women Veterans, which was organized by Saranac Lake-based Creative Healing Connections. It was held Aug. 9-11 at the Wiawaka Holiday House, the only remaining operational retreat center built during the women's rights movement of the early 20th century.
Fran Yardley, a storyteller and director of Creative Healing Connections, said the idea of creating a retreat designed specifically for women veterans grew from similar retreats that the non-profit organization has hosted for women with cancer over the last 12 years.
"We just recognized this need to do the same thing for women veterans that became more and more apparent," Yardley said. "We based it on the same model that we use for our arts and healing retreats."
But finding interested participants for the first retreat, which took place last summer, wasn't so easy, Yardley explained.
"It's hard to break into the military culture because they take care of their own and they don't want some fly-by-night organization coming in and doing something they don't think is OK," she said. "We weren't sure if it would work. We were flying by the seat of our pants."
Through the help of Col. Eric Olsen, state chaplain for the Division of Military and Naval Affairs and a Saranac Lake resident, and other military contacts, organizers were able to spread the word about the retreat. Eleven women participated last year. This year, the event grew to 20 participants, who ranged in age from 25 to 70, and included storytelling, songwriting, yoga, hiking, massage and meditation, among other activities.
"The basic tenet of our arts and reintegration retreats is to provide a safe place for these women to be able to tell their stories," Yardley said. "All the activities are nothing more than the catalysts for these people who have been wounded, whether its physically, emotionally or psychologically, to be able to speak their stories and listen to the stories of others."
Yardley said the location of the retreat was just as important as its programs.
"They get out of the car and here's this lake, and the breeze is blowing off the lake, and the lake is surrounded by mountains - the whole thing just speaks of peace and they're able to immerse themselves in that," she said.
Connie Lennon, of Selkirk, who served in the Army as a wheeled vehicle mechanic at Fort Lewis, Wash. from 1977 to 1979, said women who serve in the military rarely get together and talk.
"Mostly it's the guys who have the VFW and other organizations," she said. "I know there's a bunch of women out there who could benefit from things like this. But to get them to all come together is hard."
"This was the first time I've met a group of women veterans ever," said Theresa Phillips, who served in the U.S. Army from 1989 to 1992 as a Russian language interrogator and an Airborne jumper. "They're very hard to find. Naturally, there's less women than men in the military in general, but it's also because there's not a lot out there for us. There's not a lot of acknowledgment for women veterans."
Burdick admits she had some misgivings about such a retreat when she first heard about it at an outpatient VA clinic in Rome.
"At first I didn't think I would fit in because so many were wartime vets," she said. "But I said to myself 'No, you need to go.' And I did. What I got from it personally was a feeling of joy, acceptance and validation. The women who were the facilitators stood by and basically set the stage for us to begin a dialogue."
Lennon, who also participated in last year's retreat, said the group quickly came together.
"The first day no one really knows what to say, but by Wednesday it was like we had been buddies forever," she said. "Not all of us served combat but it doesn't make any difference, we all served."
Phillips said the group frequently discussed the unique challenges of being a woman soldier.
"For me, I was at the top in everything I did when I was in the military," she said. "That ends up making it a lot more difficult for me because I was around men who were not as good as me. I was challenged and asked to prove myself time and time again. And that wears you down."
Phillips said she experienced discrimination, harassment and other things she wouldn't describe that were even worse. Those experiences changed her as a person.
"It completely molded who I am as an individual," she said. "It was so ingrained in me."
Phillips said she wishes that such a retreat was available when she first got out of the military.
"That would have been amazing," she said. "It was such a relief going to the retreat knowing you have a connection with those people. It's like you've been living in a foreign country for years and years and, suddenly, you see a group of Americans. It makes you feel like, 'Wow, I'm home.'"
All the women who participated in the retreat did so voluntarily. Both organizers and participants acknowledged that there may be some women veterans who aren't going to be as eager to open up.
"I can't speak for other veterans, but I do feel there are people who would feel a bit reluctant to go into this," said Burdick. "You're meeting new people and you're digging things up from your past that might not be pleasant. That might be a scary proposition for some people; it was for me."
Yardley said there were a couple of younger women who weren't into the program as much as the others.
"Maybe they felt it was a little too artsy and touchy-feely for them," she said.
But the participants interviewed by the Enterprise said the retreat wasn't long enough.
"We only wish we could have had one more day," said Lennon. "By the time we all got comfortable talking, it was Wednesday and we're going home."
The retreat costs $299, but Yardley said none of the participants had to pay this year because Naj Wikoff, who hosted a similar retreat for male soldiers earlier this summer, was able to secure two grants to cover their costs.
Additional retreats will take place next year, Yardley said.
"No question about it," she said. "I think both the women and the men's retreat will happen next year because the need is still there."
Patriot Hills tie-in
While the two are not directly connected, the kinds of programs offered at the retreat are what organizers of Patriot Hills at Saranac Lake are hoping to incorporate in their proposed retreat and reintegration center for active duty soldiers, veterans and their families, according to Patriot Hills Executive Director Susan Waters.
"This workshop is definitely a prototype for one of a variety of programs we want to do," she said.
Waters said she'll be discussing the Patriot Hills project at the Sept. 13 meeting of the village of Saranac Lake Board of Trustees. A public information session is planned for sometime the following week.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.