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Veterans Caregiving for Veterans: Military Spouses Support and Serve Each Other

Two couples share how they thrive even through challenging times

spinner image two photos of veteran couples on the left are bob and gretchen evans both in dress uniforms and on the right are briarly and marcus wilson
Veteran couples who support each other, from left: Gretchen and Bob Evans; Marcus and Briarly Wilson.
Courtesy Gretchen and Bob Evans; Courtesy Marcus and Briarly Wilson

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.  

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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. 

spinner image two photos of bob and gretchen evans one at a beach coastline and another in front of a cathedral in europe
Bob Evans says he is part of wife Gretchen’s “rope team” — sharing her “triumphs and trials.”
Courtesy Gretchen and Bob Evans

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.”

In 2013 Gretchen, who remained an avid athlete and marathoner, was out for a run. A bicyclist was coming up behind her and called out to make her aware. Due to her deafness, she did not hear the warnings, and the bike inadvertently pushed her into traffic, where her life was spared only by the special braking system of the car. 

At the VA hospital, Gretchen was told that she should no longer run and she worried that her independence would be curtailed. True to form, she found a group that trains service dogs for hearing impaired veterans and that gave her hope.

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Aura, her service dog, became one of Gretchen’s compassionate caregivers, helping to ensure she got the support, comfort and care that she needed.  Gretchen continued to strengthen her own mind, body and spirit, and she helped others do the same. She received the prestigious Pat Tillman Award for Service in 2022 due to her formation of “Team UNBROKEN,” the first totally adaptive team to compete in the endurance challenge “World’s Toughest Race.”

 Caregiving tips from Chaplain Bob Evans

  • Practice patience and utilize the “three L’s”: Learn where the person is coming from, listen to their story and then love them.
  • Always look for moments to celebrate life along the way, no matter how hard the moments may seem.
  • Research the many programmatic opportunities that exist to take a retreat, whether it’s with the cared-for or just the caregiver alone. 
  • Accept the fact that the person you care for is changing and progressing, or regressing, and recognize that your life is going to change too. Find the resources to help both of you through that “journey.” 

Together the Evanses helped start the organization Unbroken Spirit, which provides a place for them to use their own experiences to inspire and renew other veterans and their caregivers. One of the organization’s activities takes veterans on hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains and works to give them the tools and a long-term support system to thrive in the transition home.   

“My full-time work is caring for Gretchen, but I still look for ways to serve others,” says Bob. He thinks of himself as a part of Gretchen’s “rope team,” a military term that refers to the way a team is connected to prevent a fatal fall and allow everyone to complete their ascent/descent/mission. The rope team relationship allows the open sharing of feelings about triumphs and trials and can also help mitigate against issues like suicidal ideation. “Women tend to be much better at this than men,” notes Bob, “but when you share your stories, you can connect.”

Like so many caregivers, Bob has learned to carve out moments to refill his mental and emotional tank through journaling and reading.  When he reflects on the gifts of being a veteran caring for another veteran, he sees the value in shared experience. “We get each other, and we’ve walked the journey together, which is so very important for the two of us.”

Joined family, shared trauma

Sparks flew during a routine medical appointment at Camp Pendleton, California, when Chief Master Sergeant Briarly Gysler, now 50, from March Air Reserve Base, met Marcus Wilson Sr., now 47, first sergeant Marine Corps, retired.  

Stationed two hours away from one another, Briarly was a single mother of three and Marcus had six children, which made a long-distance relationship challenging. But the couple began to build a relationship over hours on the phone and then agreed to meet at a Starbucks halfway between each of them. That was the first time she learned that Marcus had been injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) blast while serving in Al Anbar Province, Iraq, in 2006. In addition to an above-knee amputation of his left leg, he suffered a TBI and subsequent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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“I didn’t know he was an amputee until we met the second time and he had shorts on,” recalls Briarly. “The first time we met he was wearing his uniform, and I didn’t notice. It wasn’t anything he talked about because he never lets it define him.”  

From that second meeting in Starbucks, the two were inseparable. “Every minute we weren’t working, we were together,” she says. Marcus was able to stay in the Marine Corps and continue to serve after his injury until his retirement from School of Infantry-West at Camp Pendleton, California, in 2015.

spinner image marcus and briarly wilson family photos
As a caregiver to her husband, Marcus, Briarly Wilson helps support his ongoing needs while managing a busy blended family of 12.
Courtesy Marcus and Briarly Wilson

They were married in 2015 and now have 10 children between them, ages 7-27.  Their youngest, Mason, was born on Veterans Day in 2015. “He was almost born on the Marine Corps birthday, November 10,” jokes Briarly, “but as an airman, I made sure that didn’t happen!”

The two families moved to the halfway mark to be able to live together, and the children became good friends. “We have a full, rich life together,” says Briarly. One of the great connections to their love story was Briarly’s discovery that it was her unit that brought Marcus back from Iraq after he was injured. “I found my squadron’s challenge coin in his possession, and I was shocked at the coincidence,” she says. “There were a few airmen still in the squadron who remembered treating and transporting him, and it was a real sense of closure for them to meet him. There is so much trauma for the corpsmen and medics, because they don’t know what happens to the injured after they take care of them.”

One of the wonderful gifts of being married to a veteran and caring for each other is that they understand one another’s job.  “Marcus understands the pressures without trying to fix it,” explains Briarly. “He offers me great advice, he is an amazing mentor and leader, I understand what he has been through so I can give him more patience, empathy and compassion.” 

Briarly feels fortunate not just to serve, but to be part of a military family with more than 50 years of combined service. “We are a medic and a marine, we are a very patriotic family and we have passed that devotion to our children, some of whom are also now serving in the military,” she says. “I’m so proud of this country and what we represent, and I look forward to our kids paving the way for the next generation.”

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