The war veterans gathered amid the tranquil gardens and arched walkways of the Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside. In a circle, they sat together, more than 50 women in all.
Some laughed and chatted as they settled in chairs or propped themselves up on the floor of an adobe-walled hall. Others glanced around, uncertain what to expect from a weekend retreat.
Several commented that it was the first time they had been in a room with so many women.
"I feel like I'm in a Lamaze group," Kristine Wise, a 41-year-old former soldier from Oceanside, said with a chuckle.
For years, the women concealed their femininity beneath tough military garb. Feelings were often bottled up because they could be seen as signs of weakness.
Here, they were told, they could speak freely.
"Sharing your story can be a great gift to your sisters," said Joseph Bobrow, a psychologist, meditation instructor and the only man in the room. "Because they may recognize themselves in your experience and they may feel less alone."
Memory stirs anger
Muriah Bohannon, 37, felt the anger bubble up as she described to the group an encounter last year with a stranger in an Oregon parking lot.
A former Air Force reservist, Bohannon was attached to the Army in Iraq in 2004 to help protect supply convoys, which came under frequent attack.
"If it wasn't small-arms fire, it was car bombs, if it wasn't car bombs it was IEDs [improvised explosive devices]," she would later explain.
She and her husband are both decorated veterans, and their car has special license plates. But when a passerby noticed the plates, he asked her to thank her husband for his service.
"I wanted to punch him in the face," Bohannon told the women. "We work twice as hard to get half the respect."
About 255,000 of the more than 2 million U.S. military personnel who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are women. Even though they are officially barred from direct ground combat, the realities of the wars sometimes put women in the thick of battle.
Female soldiers and Marines are attached to all-male infantry units to handle interactions with women in conservative Muslim societies; female medics accompany those units on raids and patrols; female pilots fly helicopter gunships and female gunners defend convoys.
As of April 4, 137 women had been killed and 764 injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the Department of Defense. Like their male counterparts, a growing number of female service members are returning with wounds that are harder to see: post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, depression.
Colleen Dinnie, 43, from Long Beach joined the Army in 1986. When a visiting commander spotted her on guard duty at a camp in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War, she was immediately put on a truck and sent back to Kuwait.
"I was really insulted," she told another veteran over breakfast one morning in the mission cafeteria. She had helped set up that camp.
More than a decade later, she was sent back to Iraq for a year. "I don't think it was any more or less severe than what I went through the first time, but I felt it more," she said.
When she got back, memories of mangled bodies strewn along the road in 1991 mixed in her mind with the bloody scene after a 2004 mortar strike.
"I went to Disneyland with a friend, and you know what happens in Disneyland in the summer — boom!" she said, describing the fireworks. "So I grabbed her son, and I threw him in the bushes, and it was really embarrassing."
In one sunny garden corner, a group tried out the slow, graceful movements of the Chinese meditative practice of qigong. In another, some rehearsed the "Waka Waka" dance from last year's soccer World Cup for the retreat's talent show.
They had all been invited free of charge by the Coming Home Project, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that brings together psychologists, veterans, military chaplains, interfaith leaders and others to help alleviate the unseen wounds of war.
One afternoon, about 20 women trooped across the street to Ivey Ranch Park, where Dinnie tried to attach a rope to an Arabian gelding named Teddy. They were told that equine therapy can help heal both physical and psychological injuries. But every time Dinnie approached, Teddy would step away.
"I wish I had a carrot," one woman said, laughing.
An evening of movement therapy began awkwardly. Some of the women didn't seem to know what to make of the facilitator's instructions to interpret music with "flowing elbows … flowing head … flowing shoulders." Others struggled with knee and back injuries. But by the end of the night, they were shaking their hips and doing the fishing rod dance.
"When you are in the military, there are so many freaking rules," said Wise, who had to hide that she is a lesbian from all but close friends because of the military's since-repealed "don't ask, don't tell" policy. "It's nice to just cut loose."
Tara Smith, a 29-year-old former soldier studying creative writing at San Francisco State, grabbed the front paws of Sophie, a golden retriever trained to relieve PTSD symptoms, and started dancing to Michael Jackson's "Bad."
She was among the last to share her story.
Smith was trained as a chemical specialist, but in Iraq in 2004-05, she found herself shuttling paperwork from one base to another — "a combat secretary," she said. She was driving through an area she had passed many times before when a bomb exploded near the convoy.
"That was the first time I understood that somebody is watching and waiting for me to die," she said.
When the convoy got back to base, she said, "all the guys we were with were like, 'Smith is going to cry.' So I had to stuff all that down inside me and laugh."
Back in Germany after her deployment, Smith had just been promoted to sergeant when she "started to break down and crumble."
One night in late 2005, she poured herself a glass of wine, swallowed a bottle of antidepressants and called her boyfriend to say goodbye. He rushed her to a hospital. Her commanders were furious.
"I was supposed to be setting an example for others because of the rank I had just gotten," she said. They thought it was "attention-seeking behavior."
Smith was disciplined for destruction of government property — "as in myself," she said. "I was on extra duty, mopping and sweeping and buffing the floor for battalion and cleaning the toilets."
Within months, she was honorably discharged from the Army. She has lived with the shame ever since.
"When people found out about what I did, they wouldn't look at me the same way," she said. To her surprise, the women at the retreat didn't do that.
"I was able to still make eye contact with the other people in my group and joke with them," she said. "It gives me hope that my story doesn't have to end the way that my career in the military did."
'A little stronger'
The weekend ended as it began, with the women coming together in a circle. There were tears and hugs. April Cook, 30, asked for the microphone.
"I thought … I'll always be the weird one," she said. "Don't take this wrong, but talking to everyone here, in some ways we're all the weird ones. I'm going back a little stronger — and less embarrassed."
Cook, who spoke about being raped while serving in 2007 at a base in Iraq, said she has struggled to find people she could confide in. A Navy reservist, she lives in rural Maryland and does not have regular contact with other veterans. She sees a therapist. But the nearest support groups are more than a 90-minute drive away.
"Even then, a lot of them are tailored to men," she said. "I can't always open up in a combat group about the other stuff … and the civilian groups look at you funny when you talk about all the combat stuff."
When all the women were together, she hovered at the back of the room, too nervous to sit down. But when Sophie put her head in her lap, she could feel herself unwind. Once she got to know some of the women, she started to enjoy herself.
"I got glimpses of the old April while at the retreat," she said, "talking to other women, doing activities, smiling, laughing."