Missoulian: Missoula Veterans Center, firefighters host first retreat for women warriors

What was she most looking forward to at the retreat?

Staff Sgt. Charleen Crenshaw had a quick answer, and it didn’t come from the action-packed itinerary.

“Relaxation,” said the Army Reservist and mother of nine children.

The retreat for female combat veterans was a rare opportunity for local women of all ages to share good food, laughs and build camaraderie during three days packed with activities devoted to thanking these women for their service and providing them with a rare opportunity to network and share stories with others who also served overseas.

It’s the second year the Missoula Veterans Center and city firefighters union have hosted a retreat for male combat veterans – and the first year they’ve organized a separate retreat for female veterans.

The women’s itinerary includes whitewater rafting, equine therapy, a cooking class and a day at the spa.

Local No. 271 raised thousands of dollars from local businesses so that eight men and four women can fish, raft, eat and sleep for free at the three-day retreat. It’s the firefighter union’s way of saying thanks, said Missoula city firefighter Casey Scott.

Most of the women had never been whitewater rafting before Thursday, but all seemed at ease as they chatted during the morning car ride out to Alberton Gorge. Facing new challenges and adapting to the environment around them is like second nature to these women.

“I’m really excited to raft, but I like to do girly things at the same time,” said Jennifer Alexander, a retired Army staff sergeant.

The federal government in recent years has placed greater emphasis on services for women veterans. Still, servicewomen would be hard-pressed to find local veteran retreats specifically designed for women, said Brian Becker, outreach coordinator for the Missoula Vet Center. These kinds of events exist at the national level, but there are far fewer at the regional level and in rural states like Montana.

The retreats serve two functions, Becker said. It’s a way to thank men and women for their services overseas and also a way to prevent isolation upon returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. Encouraging veterans to talk about their experiences with other veterans decreases the incidence of depression and helps veterans transition back into civilian life, he said.

Over the years, the front lines of war have blurred. The theater has changed, Becker said. While women are still not allowed to serve in combat units, many have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and are exposed to many of the same dangers as men.


Alexander, a 33-year-old retail employee, enlisted in the military right out of high school and retired from the Army in 2009 after 13 years, which included one deployment to Iraq in 2003.

Alexander was one of six women in a unit of 30 soldiers. Her unit was in Iraq for six months when their living quarters burned down. She never learned the cause of the fire, but everything she owned was lost. That’s in addition to the many explosions and other unsettling sights of war, which are just as disturbing to men as to women.

“Women are more exposed to combat-related experiences than in the past,” she said.

In addition, nationwide, one in five servicewomen experience some sort of military sexual trauma, whether it’s assault or harassment, Becker said.

While the Missoula Vet Center hosts plenty of events with both sexes, it’s also healthy to occasionally hold events where men and women are separated so they can talk openly about their experiences, he said.

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