By: Kait Gillen
“So, would you wipe my butt?”
And it is with that irreverent question, posed by my young Marine husband, that it dawned on me: I am one incident or one diagnosis from the difficult journey of being a military caregiver – a journey that approximately 5.5 million Americans are currently on.
This past week, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation in partnership with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, held their second annual National Convening on the military and veteran caregiver journey. The convening focused on a number of key announcements and plans, with the main focus being on developing the Military Caregiver Journey Map. This tool was created by the foundation through research compiled by the RAND Corporation, and aims to provide community leaders and families the necessary outreach tools for caregivers.
As a brand new member of the ScoutComms team and new Virginian thanks to our recent PCS to Quantico, I was eager to experience my first trip to the Capitol. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed. After battling Satan’s Highway (more commonly known as I-95), I made it into downtown D.C. Driving past the Washington Monument, I got a few patriotic tears in my eyes. I had wanted to visit the Capitol since I was a child, but now I was here – for good. With appearances by Senator Elizabeth Dole herself, VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin and the incomparable former First Lady, Mrs. Laura Bush (a personal childhood hero), the gathering garnered every bit of the attention that it deserved. I tried (and failed) to not giggle like a ridiculous school girl when Mrs. Bush took the stage, but it was a moment in time I won’t soon forget. Her speech was both relevant and moving, as she discussed the idea that “now is all we have.” As a military spouse of eight years, this notion rings true. Training accidents, deployment injuries and other incidents are a daily reality for so many. And while, as a young spouse, I dwelled far too much on these possibilities, that doesn’t change the fact that they are real. Knowing that there is a growing network and movement supporting those facing the long and difficult journey of a caregiver does provide a sense of reassurance.
The bulk of the convention concentrated on the Military Caregiver Journey Map and group editing sessions that will better focus the continued work of the foundation and the new research efforts being headed up by the VA. The final hour of the day was devoted to a panel comprised of four Dole Caregiver Fellows, each with heart-wrenching stories of both tragedy and triumphs.
“I grieve for my sons…that’s where the grief comes from now, they want to connect…he’s there, but he’s not there,” Mrs. Carolyn Tolliver Lee said, a Dole Caregiver Fellow, as she described the “long goodbye” of caring for her medically-retired U.S. Army veteran husband who suffered grand mal seizures that ultimately caused brain damage. She shared with the audience that she had been married to Mr. Lee for 37 years – we all cheered. As the applause quieted, she took a deep breath and said, “And he’s only been well for seven of those.” A profound gasp rippled through the crowd as we all grasped her reality.
When my husband asked me years ago if I would wipe his derriere should that need arise, he asked me casually, simply, but not quite jokingly. We were newlyweds with all the glow and optimism that the title brings, but also faced the daunting realities that are simply a fact of military life. It would be three years before he saw combat. And in those first days of his deployment, all the assurances and confidence that I had built up over the last few years disappeared. I became fragile and frantic, unable to sleep and consumed with the time difference – concerned he was taking fire while I was snoozing the night away. With time, the anxiety eased and I found myself focused on the facts: the pure simple statistics that told me most likely my husband would be just fine – and with a thankful heart, I say that is true. But for so many others, that simply is not the case.
Whether it is the invisible wounds like post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries or the more obvious physical injuries, spouses, parents and other family members are left struggling to cope with their new role as a caregiver, often not even recognizing that is their identity now. That is why the groundbreaking work being done by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, the VA and the many others like USAA who support that mission is so very vital. We must aid those who have devoted their lives to aiding others.