Robin’s Home in Butler County pivots conversation around addiction recovery, women veterans

Irina Bucur, Eagle Staff Writer – March 19, 2024

Butler Eagle Article

Jill Dettro is an Army veteran and certified peer specialist who helps lead a support group for women in Butler. Zach Petroff/Butler Eagle

As a veteran and advocate for addiction recovery, Mary Chitwood, founder and director of Robin’s Home, gives back to other women veterans in Pennsylvania. In the process, she challenges misconceptions about veterans and addiction recovery.

Unlike other female-only and transitional living treatment centers, residents of Robin’s Home in Butler — who are received from cities as far away as Philadelphia — are able to bring their children with them.

Women veterans in unstable homes can stay for periods of time exceeding the standard 90 days of other centers, during which they work on their personalized service plans and participate in workshops, attend trauma therapy, meet with caseworkers and build daily routines.

Even within a group of women veterans of similar backgrounds who may all struggle with addiction, there is no such thing as “cookie-cutter recovery,” said Peggy Steinbrunner, a Pennsylvania-based psychologist and Army veteran who served on active duty.

Every woman has a different story, a different experience — and gender-specific care is critical, she said.

Gender-specific care

Being encouraged by other women veterans with similar life experiences at Robin’s Home strengthened her road to recovery, said Karen Triscas, a Navy veteran and former resident.

“Only female veterans know what it’s like to be a female veteran in the military,” Triscas said. “Only we know how things get blanketed. Only we know how things happen.

“Only we know how embarrassing it is to go to the chain of your command, to your commander, and say, you know, ‘This person did this to me,’ when you know that in doing that you may ruin careers and lives and families. Only we know that guilt.”

Steinbrunner said substance use disorder is not uncommon among veterans, but addiction treatment and trauma therapy are not one-size-fits-all.

Assessing trauma in women veterans means taking their gender into consideration, Steinbrunner said.

“Historically, there’s been a misconception that we’re kind of all the same in terms of medical treatment, and, of course, that’s not the case in many regards,” Steinbrunner said. “You know, biologically, physically being one, but also from a mental health or behavioral health perspective.”

“If you weren’t a woman veteran, you might not ask about the other things that happen, like the (sexual) harassment and discrimination that happen so frequently,” she said.

On its website, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs notes about 1 in 3 women tell their VA provider they were sexually assaulted. This statistic does not take sexual harassment into account. Nor does it consider the women whose sexual assaults go unreported in the military.

Sexual assault — which occurs at a higher rate among women than men in the military — compounds the risk of suicidal thoughts and suicidality.

“It’s almost kind of, you know, sexual harassment and some degree of stereotype and discrimination has become synonymous with being a female service member,” Steinbrunner said. “And I do think we’re making progress in that regard. But I think that is something that probably still doesn’t get enough attention or people think we’ve made more progress than we have.”

Jill Dettro — who wanted to join the military from the time she was a little girl and was inspired by her grandfather who retired from the Navy — said she faced discrimination after her time in the military.

Dettro was deployed from 1988 to 1992 and worked in the Army for an additional eight years after her deployment. As a military technologist in Desert Storm, she worked in the 85th evacuation hospital, where she was in charge of blood banks. When missiles would frequently fly past them, Dettro and her team would change into protective gear.

Dettro recalled the moment two male veterans told her she must have worked as “just a secretary” in the Army.

“I feel like we didn’t get the same recognition as men did,” Dettro said.

Addiction and trauma

Steinbrunner said an individualized and gender-specific approach to recovery is essential to addressing trauma and substance use disorder in women veterans. Additionally, what may put one veteran on the pathway to recovery may not work for another.

“There are many roads to recovery and wellness. And so, you know, forcing everybody for example, to go to an (Alcoholics Anonymous) or an (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting, that’s just not going to work. And there are other options like SMART recovery. And so we have to have a foundation in evidence-based practice, but we also have to meet the person where they are as an individual and find the path that’s going to work best for them,” Steinbrunner said.

“When I see a veteran in the jail … a great deal of time it is connected to some level of trauma,” said Kelly Fulmer, veterans justice outreach specialist at VA Butler Healthcare. “Trauma is layered. The more trauma there is, the harder it is to get through.”

Trauma can manifest itself through a wide range of responses that include — but are not limited to — post-traumatic stress disorder, Steinbrunner said.

“Sometimes it’s kind of classic PTSD, with, you know, nightmares or reexperiencing symptoms or intrusive thoughts and avoidance, but sometimes it’s straight depression. They blame themselves, or they see the world generally as a dangerous place and it might not manifest specifically as PTSD, but it’s, you know, a major depressive disorder or irritability, or withdrawing from people,” she said.

Steinbrunner said one of the hallmarks of PTSD is the “avoidance component.”

Substance use is the ultimate avoidance strategy, she said — it develops as a coping strategy for the brain to avoid processing the impact of a trauma.

“It chemically helps the person avoid whatever pain they’re feeling,” she said.

From left, Karen Triscas and Mary Chitwood. Zach Petroff/Butler Eagle

Facing stigmas and challenges

Recognizing women also serve in the military will curb the stigma of addiction recovery and the false perception that women veterans are invisible, Chitwood said.

“A lot of times as women, we suffer in silence, and we don’t reach out for help. I think especially veterans because when I went through the military, it was a sign of weakness,” she said.

“Women are also deployed. Women are also seeing things that males see,” Chitwood said. “We have very much served our country in many of the same capacities that our male counterparts have.

“We deserve that same respect. And the thing is, I think as a woman in the military, you have to work twice as hard as your counterparts because you have to prove yourself.”

Steinbrunner said women serve in the military at a lower rate than men because of a host of systemic barriers. The unequal number is not due to the fact that women don’t want to serve or can’t serve in the same capacity as men, she said.

What’s next for Robin’s Home

After completing trauma-informed training for a peer specialist program and passing the state board certification exam in the summer, Chitwood, Triscas and Dettro now lead a support group for women in Butler.

In January, Robin’s Home also established the first all-female peer support program in Butler County, providing services to women veterans in Butler, Armstrong, Clarion, Lawrence and Mercer counties.

“The VA has some male peer supports that work with our male veterans, but a lot of females aren’t comfortable with male veterans. And so we will meet with them in the community,” Chitwood said. “If they’re at their house, and that’s where they feel comfortable meeting, we will meet them there and we will also work with other people within their household. If they have kids or a spouse that need to be connected to different resources and services, we’ll work with everybody in the household.”

Veterans have an easier time recovering from mental health and substance use disorders when they are supported by a peer with similar lived experience, Triscas said.

Triscas said setting her sights on becoming a certified peer specialist encouraged her through her own recovery.

“You have no idea how much hope it gave me, that I could do something like that. That I can have a credential,” she said. “People like me don’t have careers. You know, we get lost in the system or we get lost in ourselves.

“To find that there’s a program that you can do where you can give back — not only recover — but be a productive member of society, be looked upon as normal, give back to help someone else out, that fuels my recovery as well. It goes back and forth.”

Dettro shared, “I recently went tandem skydiving. It kind of reminded me of recovery. I had to completely trust in the people that were trying to help me and just let go.”