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Shining a Light on Hidden Military Caregivers

Ways to support and honor veterans and their families

spinner image A veteran talks with an active member of the military on a couch about caregiving
Jim Burger

I was in Disney World with my four children when a phone call changed my life. The president of ABC News was on the line, telling me that my journalist husband had been injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq. I remember trying to process the words “shrapnel to the skull” and “head trauma.”  Bob had covered wars and conflicts for years and was embedded with the Marines during the Iraq invasion. This trip was supposed to be a short, simple visit to Iraq and back. 

From trauma to healing

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But in war, as with head injury, nothing is simple. When I finally saw his comatose body, skull shattered by the force of the blast, my world shrunk down to the immediate moment and staying in a bubble of hope. The present was all I had and that was where I tried to live for the next six weeks until Bob woke up from his coma. That was when the real work began.

Life at Bethesda Naval Hospital near Washington, D.C. (now called the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center), was another world. Unlike Bob, I was unfamiliar with the military culture and impressed by the tribe of families who supported one another through tragedy in multiple ways. Those families would teach me many things about serving your country, about quiet, selfless heroism and about resilience.

Impact of war

Eighteen years have passed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The young men and women enlisting in the military today were not alive when the planes hit the twin towers. And even now, nearly two decades later, we are still a country at war.

In those 18 years, thousands of Americans have enlisted, deployed, fought, come home wounded or different. Some have not come home at all. Lives have been disrupted, dreams hijacked and extinguished. Loved ones have knelt at gravesides or quietly gone about the business of caregiving — decades before they had imagined the role would apply to them. An alarming number of veterans have taken their own lives as we struggle to provide adequate mental health therapies. The number of veteran suicides recently exceeded those who died on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s simply unacceptable.

Remembering and giving thanks

As we move from Veterans Day toward thoughts of Thanksgiving and family gatherings, most of us just go back to work and life. But for so many military families and caregivers, each day is filled with challenges — from the mundane to the extremely difficult.

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I think about Marines I know like Colin from Nebraska, who was shot in the head on a rooftop in Iraq at the age of 19 in 2009. His father, Henry, spends each day with him at therapy, working to get speech and function back after this debilitating brain injury. 

spinner image Lee Woodruff
Lee Woodruff

There is Shervon from Ohio, whose mother, Gayle, was by his bedside for years after his injury in Iraq, working to help him communicate. She was there for multiple surgeries and infections, pushing his wheelchair and advocating for his needs. Shervon, tragically, passed away in 2016.

There are countless examples of veterans and their families, struggling every day to complete simple tasks, to feel whole, to find the strength to rise and tackle another session at rehab, beat back depression or search for a new job or purpose when they can no longer return to military service.

Are you or someone you know caring for a military veteran? Share their story.

Respect and support

While Colin was being rushed by helicopter into surgery in Baghdad, someone like me was at the sidelines of a kids soccer game, paying a bill or standing in line at the grocery store. Whether or not you agree with the politics behind wars and conflicts, Americans need to respect the fact that people are willing to put their lives on the line so that our children can make that choice.

And when our service members and their families need support, it’s up to us as a nation to assist in whatever way we can. I will always remember the look of the Marine wife in Texas who was put in a safe house after her childhood sweetheart tried to strangle her for the third time in her sleep. I’ve thought often about the courage it took for her to leave with the kids, the energy it required to tend his emotional wounds while trying to make it “all right” for her children. Who is caring for her? The caregivers in war are the incidental victims, slowly ground down by the fatigue of caring for a loved one, often at the expense of their own health.

Unlike so many other stories, ours ended well. My husband recovered in ways that seem miraculous at times. Yet, there are moments I get greedy for what we lost. I’ve learned how to rein in my nagging voice when he needs more sleep or isn’t drinking enough water. You still don’t want to phone my home after 9:30 p.m. — because late-night calls trigger memories of that one life-changing call. Trauma creates permanent grooves in any caregiver, the constant vigilance of waiting for another shoe to drop. 

Paying it forward

Our family received a disproportionate amount of attention for our story. It was important to do something positive with the “bad thing” and in 2007 we started the Bob Woodruff Foundation, raising awareness and money for veteran organizations and community programs that get results. During the years since Bob’s injury, it has been a privilege to meet so many military families and connect with some incredible caregivers. 

A few things I’ve learned along the way

  • I’ve never met a veteran who wants to be referred to as a hero. They simply see themselves as someone doing their job.
  • “Thank you for your service” is best backed up with an action: Pick up a check, pay the coffee forward or donate to an organization that helps veterans.
  • Real change begins at the grassroots level. Look for organizations in your communities and find ways to contribute your time, talent or treasure.
  • Know of a military caregiver? Surprise them with a gift certificate for a personal luxury like a manicure, massage or meal. 
  • For many who don’t have anyone to stay with their loved one, helping them to get out the house is a wonderful gift.
  • Veterans and service members are driven by the opportunity to serve. A great example is Toys for Tots. When you donate a toy to help an American child, you are also endorsing and honoring the Marine Corps’ public service.
  • Teach your children and grandchildren that military service is honorable and important. Find veterans in your community and ask them to share their stories.

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