Veterans Day is a time when our country collectively focuses on the sacrifice and commitment our nation’s veterans have made since the founding of this country. Beyond the parades and speeches, the raised flags and the “thanks for your service” nods, thousands of military families, some of whom have been injured, live and work in local communities and serve as caregivers for one another. It is always a privilege to hear their stories.
Like any shared activity, commonalities such as serving in the armed forces can create the glue. While everyone would admit that caregiving is exhausting and selfless work, the veteran caregivers I spoke with who are helping a loved one have a bond that goes beyond simply family.
Walking the journey together
Gretchen and Bob Evans, 63 and 69, from Northlake, Texas, met in Afghanistan in 2005. He was a chaplain in the Navy; she was a command sergeant major in the Army (the most senior enlisted person, noncommissioned officer). “The hardest day we have is the Army/Navy game,” jokes Bob.
The couple formed a deep friendship while working together in Afghanistan, but a romantic relationship was out of the question while working for the same commanding officer. In 2006 Bob returned to his role as a senior Navy chaplain stateside but continued to think about Gretchen. “She’s a genius who could lead men and women with compassion and care, but she was also one of the most enthusiastic people I’d ever met,” he says.
During a particularly chaotic time in the war, Bob emailed Gretchen to see how the troops were. “At the end of my email, I asked if she would ever be romantically inclined toward me,” remembers Bob. When she came back to the U.S. on furlough, she and Bob connected, and he asked her to marry him.
Both were overjoyed about their future together, but neither could have imagined how much life was about to change. When Gretchen returned to Afghanistan during a visit to a forward operating base (FOB) in the last weeks of her tour, she was hit by a mortar round, which left her totally deaf and with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). She also received shrapnel injuries and suffers from PTSD because of the incident. As a resilient person, Gretchen was determined to recover and become adept at reading lips. Still, she gave Bob an “out” if he wanted to back out of the commitment. He wouldn’t have it. “I told her that nothing had changed that fact that I was in love with her,” recalls Bob. “We were married several months later.”
While theirs is a compelling love story, it also involves the very real challenges associated with caregiving. “From the time Gretchen came back, I was on the frontlines ready to nurture and support her,” says Bob. “But as a chaplain, I knew I couldn’t do it all by myself.”