Tuesday, July 14, 2020
‘Invisible War’ Vet Thanks Higher Ground
Kate Weihe, the executive director of Higher Ground SV, said not enough people know about all that the organization does.
Monday, May 27, 2019


Trina McDonald was absolutely committed to serving her country—her grandfather had served in the U.S. military and, besides, it seemed like a good way to get out of the small town in Kentucky where she had grown up a basketball star.

McDonald’s stint in the military did prove to be life changing, beginning with the airplane flight she took—her first. But it soon proved life changing in ways she’d never imagined.

She breezed through boot camp, getting high on the exercise. Then she headed out to a remote Naval  station in Adak, Alaska—keen on the adventure she was about to undergo.

Kirstin Webster had a long list to read off as she introduced Trina McDonald.

But on Valentine’s Day 1989—just months after arriving--she was raped not once but three times. Then she was beaten and thrown in the Bering Sea.

“I was sexually assaulted by people I thought were friends,” said McDonald, who described the conspiracy of silence that followed in the documentary “The Invisible War,” which won the Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival.  

It was only through the Veterans Administration and Higher Ground Sun Valley that she found her way back, she told a crowd at a Higher Ground Huddle Up held Thursday night at Gilman Contemporary.

McDonald acknowledged that her #metoomilitary experience was not a pretty one to recount as the nation headed towards Memorial Day.

Trina McDonald appeared in “The Invisible War,” which created a stir when it was shown in Sun Valley at the Family of Woman Film Festival.

But her story has become one of advocating for the reduction of military sexual trauma and suicide prevention in the female military population. And so, to her, it’s become a necessary retelling.

Discharged in 1990 due to a knee injury, she had no idea how to transition to life as a civilian. Her drinking raged out of control for 10 years, as did her mind, which was reeling with memories of the assaults. She went through a period of homelessness and made several attempts at suicide.

“I felt violated physically and traumatized emotionally,” she said. “My confidence was wiped out. I’d drink to blackout. It just got worse and worse, a downward spiral. I was an addict in so much pain. At some point, I realized I didn’t know how to live but I didn’t want to die.”

McDonald went to Alcoholics Anonymous—she just celebrated 20 years of sobriety. And she found her way to the Veterans Administration.

Cate Robinson and Michael Vowels, who attended the Huddle Up, are looking forward to next winter when Mike’s film shot in Sun Valley is shown at the International Ski Hall of Fame gala in Sun Valley, along with an 11-minute video produced by a hearing-impaired friend called “Sounds of Silence.”

And in 2002 she told her story for the first time in “The Invisible War,” which shows the toll sexual assault has taken among members of the U.S. military. It was in telling her story that she found the healing she had sought so long.

A camp for female veterans offered by Higher Ground on a lake in the Sawtooth Mountains helped her regain her confidence as she talked with other survivors of sexual assault and PTSD who could relate to her. And she found again her love of sports as she played basketball and bocce.

“It was an intense five days, in which we used body and mind to change what we had become,” she recounted. “It reminded me how important recreation was in my life and Higher Ground showed me what we could do together.”

Now married, McDonald is a stepmother to three boys and an advocate for other veterans who share her experience of military sexual trauma. She served as a chemical dependency counselor until her PTSD prevented her from continuing that career.

She’s spoken before Congressmen, and she’s appeared on CNN, PBS and NPR and in The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. And she’s part of the leadership team of Common Defense, a grassroot veterans organization focusing on prevention of hate against veterans and their families.

 She still struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, but the fight is easier.

 “Although my first experience was horrific, I do not think the military was bad. What we really need to do is have more programs like Higher Ground. Higher Ground gave me an important part of myself back. It taught me that I need to stay active. And my mental health so much better now,” she said.

Kate Weihe, the executive director for Higher Ground, noted that her organization “does some amazing things I don’t think we share enough” as she acknowledged McDonald’s praise for the organization.

Now 20 years old, its helps train Special Olympians year-round and provides adaptive skiing and off-road cycling for Sun Valley-area residents and visitors. And it offers veteran’s camps for servicemen who suffer from PTSD, traumatic brain injury and other injuries.

It teaches schoolchildren what it’s like to have disability, she said. And it tries to improve the self-confidence, independence and quality of life of those who do have a disability.

“We have more than a thousand veterans living in Blaine County and we need to connect them more,” said Weihe. “Our vet programs are growing.”

Weihe said 450 volunteers have helped out with Higher Ground, providing 25,000 hours of service a year doing everything from serving at Higher Ground’s Hero’s Journey dinner to assisting vets on skis.

“And that’s mind boggling,” she added. “But we can always use more.”

Donations are welcome, too, with 87 cents of every dollar donated going to programs.

“And each year more adults and children want to participate in our programs,” she added.

For more information, visit https://highergroundusa.org. Or, call 208-726-9298.






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