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Thetford Retreat Offers Women Veterans Respite

Thetford — The elementary school teacher couldn’t believe that the military took up that much time.

That’s what Tara Mathiowetz remembers.

“You mean, he’s not going to have contact with his children for a year?” the teacher asked. “He can’t make a schedule and find some time every week?”

“He can try,” Mathiowetz replied, “but nothing’s ever predictable on a base.”

When Mathiowetz’s husband was sent overseas in April 2011, their children had a difficult time adjusting to school without his presence, she said. And teachers seemed puzzled over the fact that he wouldn’t be more readily available.

“I love the life, but it’s tough to keep going with a family,” she said. “Civilians sometimes have a hard time understanding military life.”

Mathiowetz, 35, is no stranger to it. Her father served in the Navy while she was growing up in Maine and right out of high school she joined the Air Force.

She worked as an information manager in Arizona and Alaska. At the end of 2001, she and her company were deployed to Kuwait. And after six years of service, she had obtained the rank of staff sergeant. She went on to marry another serviceman and had two children, a boy and a girl.

She said assimilating herself and her family into civil life has been challenging.

But this weekend, Mathiowetz got the opportunity to connect with other women who have experienced similar issues through Project New Hope, a nonprofit organization that holds free retreats for veterans and their families.

She joined about 25 other women veterans at the Gove Hill Retreat in Thetford for yoga, meditation and seminars on helpful day-to-day thinking.

Begun in 2011, Project New Hope is a safe, secluded way for veterans to spend time together and share their stories and struggles, said Bill Moore, the organization’s president and a fellow veteran of 30 years.

“Nobody knew anybody coming in here on Friday,” Moore said. “Now, they’re all talking and giggling. Their bonds are forming. They know what everyone here is going through.”

Yesterday afternoon, Heather Powell and Victoria Greenia chatted indoors on a couch, each with 12 needles poking out of their ears.

“Acupuncture,” said Powell, 52, who served six years in the Air Force and will retire this week from her current stint in Burlington with the National Guard.

The topic of conversation was Queen, the popular British rock band from the 1970s.

“Freddie Mercury was one of a kind,” Powell said.

Greenia, 36, mentioned how someone she knew tried to draw a comparison between Queen and the modern pop band Fun.

“I get where they’re coming from with the whole lead vocals and background vocals,” said Greenia, a U.S. Air Guard photojournalist. “But you can’t make that connection. Not yet.”

Powell said she enjoyed being able to sit back and discuss rock music.

In 1982, when Powell was shipped out to Korea for a year of work as a linguist, the Air Force “was, unfortunately, a boy’s club,” she said.

Powell said she remembered higher-ranking officers who would write “mediocre” performance reports for women officers, she said, which would diminish any opportunity for promotion.

“It was all subtle stuff,” she said. “There was nothing outright, but it was tough.”

Powell said she thinks inequality in the military is less rampant now because of the changes in culture and the greater number of women who are serving.

“Women forced more gains,” she said.

Lisa Smith, 32, sat outside on a bench swing and reflected on the difficulties she’s faced since being discharged from the Army.

Smith, who is gay, said she was a victim of a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” scandal during her basic training in 2004 at Fort Jackson, S.C.

Since discharged, she has a bleak outlook on the world and feels powerless, she said.

She lives in an apartment in Bath, N.Y., about 70 miles southeast of Buffalo, and has bounced between jobs the last two years.

“I feel like I’m swimming in a sea and don’t know how to stay afloat,” she said. “It’s not a good feeling.”

A group gathering of women veterans made her feel like she belonged to something again, she said, just like her days in the Army.

“It’s much needed peace,” she said, rocking on the swing. “It’s nice that there are programs like this out there.”

Zack Peterson can be reached at 603-727-3211 or zpeterson@vnews.com.