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Finding peace on the riding trail

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM | The New Hampshire Union Leader | Published: May 3, 2015

MANCHESTER, N.H. (Tribune News Service) -- 'I'm in heaven," Lindsey Bernard grinned from atop a gentle giant of a Clydesdale named Gruffy, her face alight.

The 31-year-old Marine Corps veteran from Manchester was attending a weekend retreat for women veterans at Touchstone Farm, a therapeutic riding center in this southwestern New Hampshire town.

There were horses to ride, lessons in carriage driving, eggs to gather and a barn where a friendly donkey, goats, sheep and miniature horses were happy to be fed and brushed. There were spa treatments, shared meals, hay rides -- and the pleasure of each others' company.

"They're just the most phenomenal group of women," Bernard said. "We all have different backgrounds, ages, branches, where we served. But no matter what, you still have that underlying sense of camaraderie and sisterhood."

Jane Manning of Tilton, 46, joined the service while still in high school and spent 20 years on active duty with the New Hampshire Army National Guard.

She was the first female recruiter for the Army Guard. "I loved it," she said.

On Friday, Manning went horseback riding for the first time in her life. She couldn't wait to send a photo to her 13-year-old daughter: "She won't believe I rode a horse."

Manning said the retreat was giving her the chance to meet older women who had much different experiences in the military than her own. "I just think this is a great way to connect," she said.

Like their male counterparts, many women have suffered for their military service; some have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injuries (TBI). And some are dealing with the effects of what the Department of Defense calls military sexual trauma (MST).

The retreat at Touchstone Farm was a place for healing and wholeness.

Boo Martin started Touchstone Farm on her family's farmstead 44 years ago. She's done therapeutic riding with children for many years, and thought the same magic could help wounded warriors as well.

"A horse is just very intuitive," she said. "It's almost like a blank easel for the person to kind of find what they need."

Martin has been working with folks from New Hampshire National Guard and the V.A. Medical Center to create programs for veterans and their families. She's getting funding from Wounded Warrior Project and other foundations so veterans don't have to pay for activities at the farm.

The women's retreat this weekend was the first of its kind. The only cost to the 11 participants: "Two hours at the end of a shovel," to help get the gardens ready for planting, Martin said.

Offering help

Shannan Brown is a peer support specialist for the Manchester V.A. Medical Center. She was an air traffic controller in the U.S. Air Force; she served in Afghanistan and has TBI and PTSD.

Brown has organized other retreats for her fellow women veterans. When she came to visit Touchstone last winter, it felt like a place where women could safely share their stories and secrets, she said.

Nan Cates, 58, served stateside in the Women of the Air Force (WAF) in medical supply. She has PTSD and MST.

The MST came after a commanding officer sexually assaulted her, she said, "The only consequence he got was to apologize to my husband."

Cates lost her brother, a veteran of Army Special Forces, to suicide last year. He worked as a trauma nurse and suffered from PTSD. "He was too busy taking care of others and not taking care of himself," she said.

The retreat offered a chance to be with comrades, Cates said. "We feel safe among each other," she said. "We have each others' backs."

And the serenity of the farm was therapeutic, she said. "They say God puts a performance on every day. You just got to show up for it."

Refreshed

Karen Romanelli, 58, of Manchester, served in the Women's Army Corps in the years just after the Vietnam War ended. Her dad had served in the Navy and her grandfather in the cavalry.

She got thrown from a Jeep and suffered a disabling spinal injury. She also has depression and PTSD.

But she spent Friday learning how to drive a small carriage pulled by Blueberry the horse and taking a hayride behind draft horses Ben and Mike. Then it was off to the small barn to feed and brush the animals.

"These retreats are what's bringing me back alive," Romanelli said, cooing to a friendly goat that had wandered over.

She was working side by side with Jean Labbe, 52, who served in the Army from 1980 to 1984.

Labbe was stationed in Berlin, Germany, during the Cold War -- "when the Wall was up." She was a protocol driver for officers, the first woman ever chosen to do that job, she said proudly.

She drove armor-plated Mercedes and BMWs. "It was great," she said. "I wore civilian clothes and packed a .45."

Once, she was held by Russian soldiers for two days while driving officers through East Berlin. "I never thought I'd see America again," she said.

Just before she left, her vehicle was rammed and fired upon. She suffered what's now recognized as TBI. "It's affected my memory," she said. "I repeat things a lot to people."

She also has PTSD and MST; she never reported her rape by a superior officer "because I wanted to keep doing the job I loved," she said.

She volunteers at the Vet Center and the V.A. But some days, it's difficult for her to get out of the house, Labbe said.

Her therapist convinced her to try the retreat. And here she was, feeding animals and making friends.

"I just feel like we understand each other and have empathy for what some of us have gone through," she said.

Gerry Duncan of Nashua, the wife of retired Col. Richard Duncan, the former Army National Guard chief of staff, has worked with the Guard's many family support programs.

When she learned about Touchstone Farm, it seemed the perfect place to bring military families to reconnect. They held their first family weekend last month.

Watching the women veterans bond and share their stories, even the painful ones, was further proof that what they're doing here can make a difference, Duncan said.

"I can see it already," she said. "I want them to know no matter what they're feeling and where they're from, this is a safe place."

Bernard said she misses the Marine Corps every day: "The unconditional devotion you have for your brothers and sisters. Because ultimately, you'd take a bullet; you'd shoot somebody for your brothers and sisters."

The youngest woman at the retreat, Bernard was finding that same comradeship in the group. "It's really heartwarming to be around these women, and even with the age difference, you still have that bond."

Like some of the others, Bernard was sexually assaulted by a man several ranks above her. She didn't report what happened because she had been drinking that night and was afraid she'd be thrown out of the Corps for underage drinking. She had just turned 19.

After she left the Marines, Bernard spent some time in California, working as a "cowgirl." She loved horses; loved riding.

Being at Touchstone Farm was helping her recover some of what she's lost. "I'm so grateful to be here," she said. "The horses are so therapeutic, both physically and emotionally."

When the afternoon activities finished on Friday, the group was off to a nearby dairy barn for ice cream. Later on, there would be an evening stroll, a bonfire and more time for talking and sharing.

As they headed out, someone sang, "I scream, you scream..."

"We all scream for ice cream!" the others joined in.

Ripples of laughter followed, and the years, and some of the hurt, seemed to fall away.

Romanelli explained what was happening: "We're all sisters; we're all veterans."

"And we knitted ourselves into a family."

swickham@unionleader.com

(c) 2015 The New Hampshire Union Leader. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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