Female Wounded Warriors Thrive Together

Kelly Wallace is a CBS News correspondent based in New York.
As my producer, Tony Maciulis, and I were on our way to cover the first camp exclusively for wounded women veterans for tonight's piece on "The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric," I remember thinking, "Am I ready for this?" I wanted to prepare myself for what I expected would be an emotionally difficult shoot, spending time with women who've lost limbs and arms and women who were told they would never walk again. I couldn't imagine what they have been through and were still going through. I assumed some would be bitter and feeling sorry for themselves, others angry. How wrong I was.

Consider this – the five women we met, brought together by the Wounded Warriors Project and the Adaptive Sports Foundation, were asked to demonstrate anger during a motion therapy exercise. They all looked at each other and laughed. That's right. They laughed because they didn't know what anger looked or felt like. They weren't angry.

"I think it's because you love life more when you stare it in the face," said retired Army Sgt. Diane Cochran, a mother of three who spent three years in the hospital after her humvee rolled over in Afghanistan. Doctors never expected her to walk again.

"We couldn't even fake it and express it in some form or fashion. It's that powerful," said retired Army Capt. Leslie Smith, who lost part of her leg to a blood disorder while serving in Bosnia.

No anger, but that doesn't mean there haven't been tough times, especially adjusting to life, no longer as a soldier, but as a woman with scars everyone can see.

"It's that American society for women is so visually oriented and what you see on the outside is what you get," said Leslie. "And I know for myself, I struggled very much with that in the beginning because I didn't feel like a whole person anymore."

Retired Army Spec. Danielle Green-Byrd, a former college basketball star at Notre Dame, lost part of her left arm to a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq. She told us everyday things, like putting her hair in a ponytail, are still difficult. "Even putting on a bra, a bra, that can be a challenge but I do it. A skirt. I'm starting to wear skirts now. That's a challenge. You figure out ways. And I think this has taught me how to be very, very patient with myself. Very patient," she said.

By 2020, one out of every five veterans under the age of 45 will be a woman like Danielle, Leslie and Diane. The question we raise in our story is whether the Department of Veteran's Administration is prepared to deal with an influx of women returning from war. Can VA hospitals which have provided care for men for decades give women the same level of care?

The women we met were new to the VA system and were for the most part satisfied with the care they had received but were concerned about the future, wondering whether the VA will truly be able to handle women's needs.

"I think everything is a learning process," said Nancy Schiliro, a retired Marine Lance Cpl. who lost her right eye after an attack in Iraq. "It's just a shame that we have to use this conflict as a learning process for them."

The VA is convening a summit this weekend, bringing together hundreds of women veterans to discuss what's working and what more needs to be done, in the areas of health care, military sexual trauma and readjusting to civilian life.

We sat down with a panel of women leaders at the VA and the message was – we are gearing up, we are on the case. We learned the VA is surveying facilities around the country to find out what's needed, providing sensitivity training to doctors on how to deal with women and even helping doctors re-learn skills such as how to give gynecological exams.

What I found most amazing about the wounded women veterans we met is that, besides not being angry, each of them says they are doing more with their lives now than they did before they were seriously injured. "I'm very proud to be a wounded warrior, amputee, and it makes life so much better," said Leslie.

What we also saw firsthand is how weekends like the retreat we were lucky enough to attend really help heal the wounds you see and the wounds you don't.

"When you are serving, you are with all men," said Nancy. "So you think that you're alone in this little journey of yours and think, 'God, I am the only female and I am injured. How is anyone going to understand me?'," she said. "And when you meet women like this, it makes you feel better that you're in great company and you're not alone out there."

Bravo Wounded Warriors and the Adaptive Sports Foundation for giving these women a chance to be women again.