Survivors find community for healing with MDW’s trauma support group

Since 2018, trauma survivors have been finding solace and recovery through the Women’s Trauma Recovery and Empowerment Group, offered by Fort Belvoir Community Hospital’s Adult Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic.

The program has become a key component of the Military District of Washington’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program’s assistance to those who’ve experienced sexual assault, harassment, domestic violence or abuse.

The WTREG was started by 1st Lt. Jennifer Weekes, U.S. Public Health Service, when she began her assignment at the hospital’s Behavioral Health Clinic. While one-on-one counseling was being offered, the clinic did not have a peer support group program for victims.

“I saw this gap and the hospital leadership supported my developing a proposal and then implementing the group,” said Weekes. “This is brand new and the first trauma group to use the Trauma Recovery and Empowerment model and it is also open to women in all branches of service, and on a space available basis, to retirees and dependents.”

Weekes explained that the behavioral health model she is using was developed by Dr. Maxine Harris, founder of the Community Connections Trauma Work Group. The model is built on the principles of strength-based approaches, validation and empowerment taught in an eight-week group session. Topics covered include mindfulness, self-care, setting physical and emotional boundaries, building self-esteem, intimacy and trust, decision making and communications skills and how to build healthy relationships.

“During the weekly sessions, a specific topic is addressed comprehensively and relevant group activities are completed,” said Weekes. “As applicable, practice work is given for group members to use in daily life. It is amazing being able to see women walk into the group feeling alone and within three weeks see them challenging themselves, participating and sharing.”

She noted that this behavioral model works because it provides empowerment and skill building. Group members see that they are not alone and build a community of peer support during their eight-week session.

“This group not only provides a supportive environment for participants,” said Weeks, “but also equips members with coping skills, along with techniques and strategies for symptom management.”

Weekes shared that she has received positive feedback from participants since the program began. She said that group members report decreased post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression symptoms. They also appreciate having a safe community to process their traumas and develop the behavior skills to cope with stressors.

Santana Smith (named changed to protect privacy), an active duty Soldier serving within the MDW, participated in a WTREG session in 2019 and echoed those reactions. She was referred to the program by the therapist she was seeing to help cope with her trauma as a victim of sexual assaults and harassment during her time in service.

“Initially the trust factor was not there, and I went into the first week with my arms crossed, not knowing what to expect,” Smith said. “I had never spoken openly about my experiences, so I was very apprehensive. But something happened. The biggest thing was that I saw I wasn’t alone. The others were talking about their trauma and I learned from them. We learned about self-care, something I hadn’t heard about. I never had girlfriends before, but these women became my sisters.”

Smith said that WTREG helped her learn how to deal with her experience and address her past. She said the sessions helped her recognize stressors and triggers and develop skills to cope with them.

‘Most of all I am speaking up for myself,” said Smith. “I felt my voice had been taken away and Lt. Weekes helps us get our voices back. I was ready to give up, but I’m still serving because of Lt. Weekes and my group sisters.”

While COVID-19 restrictions have currently halted the support group sessions, Weekes noted that referrals to the group are ongoing and members are able to reach out to Weekes via phone, video chat or email for counseling. She said that as soon as restrictions are lifted, group sessions will promptly resume.

For more information about the Trauma Recovery and Empowerment Group, individuals can contact Weekes at jennifer.d.weekes.mil@mail.mil. Referrals can be made to the Women’s Trauma and Empowerment Group by behavioral health providers and personnel within the MDW SHARP community.