| Every November we celebrate those who have worn the uniform, including the less than 1 percent of our population who voluntarily serve in the military today. And while we often place the attention and accolades on the veteran, especially the injured or wounded, the family and caregivers deserve our equal attention and gratitude.
The three caregivers profiled below see their roles not as a job but as a part of their life. Their words and devotion contain wisdom for all of us.
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Husband as caregiver
Brian Vines, 58, and his wife, Natalie, 49, met in the military while both were assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the airborne and special operations forces.
"We had so much in common,” says Brian, a Texas native. “We speak the same language and understand why we act the way we do. We both have a strong faith in God, which has helped us through some trying times."
In 2005, while stationed in Iraq, Natalie suffered a blast injury and an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury (TBI) that manifested in severe migraines. Like so many service members who simply wanted to continue their service, Natalie did her best to hide the symptoms. But in 2009 she received another TBI that resulted in a seizure disorder, cognitive disorder and severe PTSD. Those injuries led to her medical retirement and to what Brian describes as “rock bottom,” from Natalie's frustration around word-finding issues to suicidal ideation.
"Not to stereotype, but as a guy, I wasn't necessarily wired to be a caregiver,” he admits. “But as a result of her injuries, I had to learn what she needed from an emotional and physical standpoint. At the time, I didn't see myself as a caregiver, I just thought this is what a loving husband does."
Through connection to organizations like the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and the Wounded Warrior Project, Brian learned to identify as a male caregiver. More important, he learned that he wasn't alone. He found other male caregivers with whom he could speak about the unique challenges of assuming and identifying with this role, as well as advocate for others.
"Many people view disabilities as being the worst possible thing that could happen, but in many ways the experience and sharing our story has brought us closer than we ever would have been otherwise,” says Brian, who deals with his own diagnosed PTSD from two tours in Iraq.
An initial challenge — asking for help — was a pride issue. “At first I felt as if I needed to be in charge and control, to not ask for assistance because somehow that made me feel as if I was failing,” he says. “But that's a stigma I'm now actively working to diminish. I decided when Natalie came home that if I was going to be a caregiver, I would be the best I could be.”
Brian assists Natalie on a range of tasks including medication management, aiding in balance and mobility, and helping her understand conversation and written instruction, among other day-to-day activities. He cautions all caregivers that “compassion fatigue” is a real thing: “If we don't make time for ourselves during the day, even for a limited amount of time, then we become less capable. When we constantly put other people's needs ahead of our own, we don't deal with our own issues.”
The Vineses have a new sense of purpose and a mission to informally host wounded warriors and their caregivers in a house they are building in Alabama. The dream is for multiple families to visit, share stories, form connections and community, and learn how to wake surf.
"People need to remember you are not alone,” Brian says. “Your story doesn't have to be a tragedy where your injuries push you apart. It can be a love story where your experiences bring you closer together.”