SHERIDAN WY -- Audrey Bocock was a pre-med major at the University of Hawaii but the need to serve her country after 9/11 put those plans on hold.
She joined the Army National Guard and deployed to Iraq in 2004. Nothing in her past prepared her for what was to come in the war zone.
"I went through a lot in Iraq," Bocock said recently.
While Bocock was on duty, a mortar shell exploded nearby, knocking her around in the Guard shack and ultimately causing a long-term traumatic brain injury that would go undiagnosed for a number of years. Meanwhile, Bocock remained committed to completing her tour in Iraq.
"I didn't want to leave my soldiers, I didn't want to leave my unit," Bocock said. "I had a very strong sense of loyalty and duty. I knew if I left I'd be treated like crap by my unit."
Bocock had been home on a two-week leave before the explosion and already was shocked by how much the deployment had changedher.
"It was like being on another planet," Bocock said. "I was afraid to go home. It was easier being in a combat zone."
A short time after the explosion, Bocock's convoy was hit by enemy fire and her hip was shattered. Still, Bocock remained in Iraq after surgery, treating the pain with ibuprofen. But upon re-evaluation by another doctor, Bocock was quickly flown to Hawaii where she was given an 80 percent chance of walking again.
After additional surgeries, Bocock spent an extended amount of time recovering from her hip injury before returning to her studies and continuing to serve in the Army National Guard with a non-deployable unit. Bocock balanced college courses and a job while adjusting to civilian life, but it wasn't long before she felt herself spiraling out of control.
"I did a lot of pretending I was OK, but everything came crashing down on me," Bocock said. "It was crazy unbearable."
At that time Bocock went through a series of Veterans Affairs counseling programs depending on where she was living. From Reno, Nev., to Palo Alto, Calif., Bocock reached out for help, but even some of the VA's most extensive mental health therapy programs weren't effective.
"They said my traumas were too extensive," Bocock said.
Finally, Bocock moved to Colorado to be closer to family so they could help her. It was there on the way to a Wal-Mart one night to buy antifreeze to try to commit suicide that one simple promise to her former counselor in Reno saved her life. Bocock used her cell phone to call the VA's 1-800 emergency crisis number and shared that she was planning to commit suicide.
"I had hit my ultimate rock bottom," Bocock said. "I had absolutely no hope at all."
Authorities traced Bocock's call, found her and quickly took her to the Denver VA where she was placed on suicide watch.
Just a few hundred miles away a new program at the Sheridan VA was taking shape. With more than 4,000 women veterans in Wyoming, and an increasing need to meet that demographic nationwide, the Sheridan VA was crafting a curriculum for a program that would become a life-changing experience for women with some of the most serious military-related traumas.
"We're trying to lay the groundwork for the women coming home from Afganistan today," said Judy Myers, the Sheridan VA's women's veterans program manager.
With more than 1.8 million women veterans across the country, the VA is ramping up efforts to reach a rapidly expanding population. Nationwide, only about 16 percent of veterans access VA services, but as these women come home some of their challenges and needs are difficult and unique.
"Females are the fastest-growing population going into the military," Myer said. "They're being used in every venue in the military."
As these women return from combat zones, some have experienced military sexual abuse, some have lingering effects of war injuries and some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
To address some of the most severely impacted women, VA officials created a program called Cognitive Process Therapy, or CPT Cohort. The first CPT Cohort began June 7 with 13 women from around the country. Bocock participated in the Sheridan VA's first CPT Cohort program.
"We just built them up and showed them they could do it," Myer said. "They found a lot of healing here."
For seven weeks, counselors, therapists and doctors worked one-on-one with the women to help them address all of their physical and mental health needs. From horse therapy to group sessions, the women spent time bonding and healing together.
"I saw a lot of positive growth," Myers said. "I saw a transformation take place before my eyes. They wanted life to be normal and they found some of that just by being together."
After weeks of therapy, self-discovery and bonding, the women left the Sheridan VA transformed.
"They left here with smiles on their face and felt they had finally, finally been heard and validated," Myer said. "It was amazing to see these women blossom and come into their own."
Ten women have already signed up for the next session, which begins in the spring.
Home for healing
When Bocock arrived in Sheridan she figured it was too late for help. But with extended time at the VA from January to late July, her walls and barriers came down.
"I hated everybody, but I loved them at the same time," Bocock said. "It was a very odd place to be."
In a wheelchair because of her hip injury, Bocock worked with doctors, counselors and therapists to rebuild her body, mind and spirit. For several months she focused on herself and her needs in order to bring herself back from the brink of self-destruction.
"Sheridan was the best thing that happened to me," Bocock said. "They came up and surrounded me and saw I needed help."
Living with women experiencing the same level of trauma helped Bocock realize she wasn't alone. Talking about struggles and problems with them became a form of therapy.
"I had never met anybody who had been through what I had," Bocock said. "My psychological trauma is pretty severe."
Now just more than a month out of the program, Bocock carries hope for her future. Determined to one day leave her wheelchair behind and return to her college course work, Bocock is eager to meet her challenges.
"I may have to take it one class at a time, but I'm going to give it my damnedest," said Bocock, who has returned to Colorado.
In the meantime, she works with her horses on a daily basis and takes time each day to heal her body, mind and heart -- something she says is now possible because of the CPT Cohort program.
"They came up beside me and walked with me so I wasn't alone," Bocock said. "They stood by me through all of my s---. Overall, it's been hell but its been well worth it and I'm so glad I wasn't alone."
Sheridan VA hopes to build women's inpatient facility
GILLETTE -- The Sheridan Veterans Administration is hoping to build a 15-bed inpatient facility to better meet the needs of women facing military-related mental health issues.
"It's really just a vision for us," said Jackie Van Mark, media relations specialist for the Sheridan VA. "It's just a dream of ours right now. We've already proven there's a need."
The Sheridan VA completed its first Cognitive Process Therapy program, or CPT Cohort, in July. Thirteen women participated in Sheridan's initial program.
"We feel we could provide a real healing environment through a women's facility," Van Mark said.
The proposed facility, already being called Harmony House, would focus on the needs of women facing serious mental health issues -- from post-traumatic stress disorder to military sexual abuse trauma. Sheridan VA officials say such intense therapeutic help and healing is currently only available in a few VA hospitals nationwide.
Van Mark said the work on behalf of women veterans will continue regardless of whether funding can be pulled together for a new facility.
"We're still here to provide services to men and women," Van Mark said. "We're still going to build our women veterans programs."
For more information, contact the Women Veterans Clinic at (307) 673-3694.
-- Kim Phagan-Hansel