It's a camaraderie that I can't really explain and I hadn't really found since the Air Force until I went to the PVA Women's Retreat, even though I had been searching and searching.
Growing up in a Marine Corps family, a military career always made sense to Air Force Veteran Tonya. After college, and shortly after September 11th, Tonya enlisted in the U.S. Air Force out of a desire to serve her country.
“I mean, growing up your whole life in a Marine Corps family, you learn to do for others,” Tonya said. “You learn that there is something greater than your wants and your needs. I knew the military gave you that it gave you a mission, that it would give me something to achieve that was more than just get up, go to work, come home.”
Tonya planned to stay in the Air Force for 20+ years and loved her MOS as an aircraft maintenance officer. However, her career was cut short when she was diagnosed with MS in her mid-twenties.
Reluctant to leave the Air Force, Tonya hoped to stay in while dealing with her symptoms by transferring to a slower-paced role in Florida. Eventually, as her MS worsened in the Florida heat, Tonya was medically retired.
“That just rocked my world,” Tonya said. “And the med board happened so fast. I didn't really know how to react to that, because I'm like, ‘Well what am I going to do now?’”
Instantly removed from her career, routine and peers made Tonya feel isolated. She spent time in rehab and tried to keep working in a civilian DOD job, but her health continued to deteriorate. Eventually, Tonya and her family had to relocate from Houston to Dallas so she could receive care through the Dallas Spinal Cord Injury Center.
While at the spinal center, Tonya met a PVA representative who encouraged her to join. Shortly after joining, Tonya heard about an upcoming PVA Women Veteran’s Empowerment Retreat in Arizona.
During the retreat, Tonya found herself surrounded by women just like her: females, Veterans, and people learning to cope with their spinal cord injuries and diseases like MS.
“It's a camaraderie that I can't really explain and I hadn't really found since the Air Force until I went to the PVA Women's Retreat, even though I had been searching and searching,” Tonya said. “To actually be around people that are so similar to you and have this similar background and drive that you get from women in the military, it's amazing.”
At the retreat, Tonya and the other women learned about full body-and-mind wellness, financial planning and resources, adaptive clothing, independent living, and how to advocate for themselves and others.
Tonya came away from the retreat feeling refreshed and inspired. When her wheelchair and the wheelchairs of two other retreat attendees were damaged during her flight home, she was quick to apply the knowledge she gained during the retreat. She immediately called the airline’s corporate offices and demanded to speak with someone about her experience.
“It was so funny because my mom was sitting there beaming. Because it's not something I would've done before the retreat,” Tonya said. “Before the retreat, I would've just let her handle it. I would've sat there and just been miserable and let her do her thing. But this time around I said, ‘No, I know how to advocate for myself.’ We learned this at the retreat.”
Tonya believes the Women Veteran’s Empowerment Retreat helps women like herself better understand what they can do, and inspires them to do more. Without the support and sense of community of her fellow PVA members, Tonya wouldn’t feel as able to live her life to the fullest.
“But to have the knowledge and to have accepted myself as I am today is what the PVA Women Veterans Empowerment Retreat actually gave me,” Tonya said. “That ability to stand up for myself is something never to be taken for granted. So that's my biggest takeaway, and I just wanted to say, ‘thank you.’”