Many veterans return home and struggle to find connection. Jennifer Pacanowski shares her healing process with others through her nonprofit, Women Veterans Empowered and Thriving.
BETHLEHEM — When Jennifer Pacanowski returned from a tour of duty as a combat medic in Iraq in 2006, she felt disconnected from herself and the world around her.
She suffered from a traumatic brain injury from a truck accident in the war and post-traumatic stress from what she saw as an ambulance medic, and she didn’t know how to cope.
“I was drinking and doing drugs and the VA was prescribing pretty heavy drugs, as well. Most people say I am lucky to be alive after the war,” she said.
Pacanowski tried joining different veterans groups.
“It was challenging being the only woman in a [drug and alcohol] rehab facility with men, you know, being the only woman in combat veteran groups. So I didn’t know it at the time, but I was definitely searching for a group of women,” Pacanowski said.
In 2007, her mother suggested she go to a 5-day writing and papermaking retreat for veterans on Martha’s Vineyard.
That retreat put Pacanowski on a new path, which led to her starting Women Veterans Empowered and Thriving in 2016. The Bethlehem-based nonprofit teaches women to use writing and performance to develop creativity, and foster comradery and empowerment.
Veterans, she said, are great at surviving or deciding when to end their lives.
“But what about thriving? What about happiness?” Pacanowski asked. “I want that for my fellow veterans more than anything.”
Healing Through Writing and Theater
Pacanowski had told her mom she’d go to the retreat, hosted by Iraq Veterans Against the War.
“And then the day I was supposed to go, I said I wasn’t going to go. So she came to my house and she packed my bags and she drove me,” she said.
She met veterans who had been kicked out of the military for being gay or transgender, or getting into trouble due to untreated mental health issues.
She and the other veterans learned to write about their experiences and share them with others. Pacanowski could relate to the others’ stories of betrayal, shame, or guilt when returning from war. And it was the first time she felt heard.
After she returned home, Pacanowski connected with other arts and veterans resources and spent the next several years traveling, writing, public speaking, and studying. She received training in facilitation, studied playwriting, and learned how to teach writing and create a safe space for veterans.
“But there was still something missing. Just trying to find my way back to the home that I had lost inside myself, feeling really disconnected and tethered to the war instead of myself,” she said.
She felt the need to do more.
Women Veterans Empowered and Thriving Helps Veterans Heal
Between 37 and 50% of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, according to the National Institute for Drug Abuse. Pacanowski said she struggled for 10 years.
“I thought, ‘Ooh, if I hang out with horses,’ or you know, I had a service dog and he was great and I loved him and he saved my life, but he was also an external force, so when he passed, I had a really hard time,” she said.
The writing retreat taught Pacanowski how to find happiness within herself, and now she teaches other veterans to do the same.
“These are really hard concepts when you’ve been taught selfless service where you’re supposed to throw yourself on a grenade or completely deplete yourself for the person standing next to you,” Pacanowski said. “What we’re advocating for is to fill your own container, and give from a place of replenishment and love, not resentment and depletion.”
She organizes 2-hour workshops, where a group of 12 people or fewer will gather to work on a writing prompt or free write with the option to share their work at the end. She encourages the participants to offer positive feedback or say something to make speakers feel heard at the end.
Pacanowski originally offered the workshops to women who lived in the Lehigh Valley or could travel there — out of a farmhouse in Bethlehem, and then local theaters. When the coronavirus pandemic started, she began offering workshops over Zoom.
That’s how Air Force veteran Melissa Cunningham of St. Louis was able to participate.
“It just changed my entire way of thinking,” she said. “This was the first time in my 43 years of being alive that I felt like this was truly a secure space and that nobody was going to look at me twice for saying anything that came to mind.”
Pacanowski has been expanding the mission of her organization to include male veterans, family members of veterans, and non-veterans.
Army veteran Corinna Brown, who has been with the group since the beginning, said it has changed her life. She describes the moment she decided to stop using drugs and alcohol and work on herself.
“I realized, ‘Oh my God, I’m the problem now. I have to change me. This isn’t about what happened to me, this isn’t about my childhood, this isn’t about the Army. It’s about me,’” she said.
Writing and performing gave her the outlet she needed to let painful feelings go.
“It feels like freedom. Because you take something out of you that has been swirling around inside your head and body for a very long time and you essentially throw it out on paper,” she said. “And to watch people hold and receive your story is like an invisible bridge and an ultimate connection and freedom to let it go.”