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Our Long Road to Recovery After My Military Warrior's Traumatic Brain Injury

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In 2004, when my husband Terry returned home from war wounded from an IED explosion in Baghdad, Iraq, I had no idea how long his recovery would take and to what extent his rehabilitation was going to be.

When Terry was injured, no one was talking about brain injuries or anything of the like, so although we were noticing serious changes in him, we were told it was fine.

As caregiver, I had to stop the freelance interior design work I was doing before, but could not drop my schooling because it would mean my student loans would soon be due for payment, and we did not have the money to pay them. I continued my schooling while I sat in waiting rooms and someone else watched our three children.

In November 2006, after months of having trouble with chronic pain and other issues, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Few people seem to talk about how many of us caregivers end up with these types of illnesses, and the possible connections to stress.

The next year Terry underwent a brutal 19-hour reconstruction surgery. For three months our family had another person living in our home to help care for our three children while Terry and I lived in two rooms at The Fisher House on Lackland Air Force Base where he received his medical care.

It was an awful year. Tube feedings, caring for his wounds from surgery, missing our children and all their school events.

Throughout it all we still continued to seek answers to several of my husband’s continuing problems. Then finally, in November of 2008, my husband and I pushed for a brain scan to be done so we could find out if we were just hypersensitive or if he actually had a traumatic brain injury (TBI). The results of his scan were abnormal and “consistent with TBI.”

To many it might be a relief to finally have answers, however for us it was also a shocking realization. We knew that there were most likely several health issues that had not been addressed since his TBI had gone undiagnosed. Plus, he was dealing with a moderate level of PTSD at the time. I felt exhausted and burned out.

In 2010, after 22 years, Terry permanently retired from the Army. We have experienced years of care, learning, exhaustion, trials and tribulations. They have also been years of opportunity, blessing, chances to give back and a realization that everyone can make a difference in life.

I look back and there are some very specific things I would love people to understand.

As a wounded warrior family there was no homecoming for my husband, no parades, not even a welcome.

He was flown to an airfield at Ft. Hood, shuttled to the hospital and then taken through a back door into a clinical area where we weren’t even able to see him until after triage.

There are no ceremonies, recognition or observances for these heroes. They fall somewhere in the “in between” – not being in active duty or a fallen soldier.

We got shuffled around in a system that treated us with the belief that in a couple months all would be “back to normal.”

We’ve learned along the way that the average recovery time for a severely wounded soldier is four to seven years. During that time family member caregivers often give up jobs and communities, and the family can end up in severe financial distress.

Our support system is not consistent or nonexistent.

I am constantly challenged with the fact that because my husband’s scars are unnoticeable, the system and the world in general tends to not understand when we try to explain the full extent of his injuries.

Unlike physically disfiguring wounds, my husband’s injuries are well hidden, but his brain injury is as real as any other type of injury.

People frequently misunderstand PTSD, thinking the individual dealing with it is violent or suicidal, which is often not the case.

I’ve spent years being my husband’s caregiver and advocate while still trying to maintain my role as wife and mother.

I have also had to take on another job, because Terry isn’t going to be able to work in the field again and retraining is going to take a lot of time.

I am tired.

Support seems to focus on the newly injured. The families who have been walking this road for years often find themselves trying to navigate the new and difficult path they are on. It’s hard not to break down from the intensity of it.

Physically, emotionally and spiritually we can reach a point where we have little to nothing left to give.

I am fortunate that I find strength in my faith, and that we had built a long, solid marriage before our lives changed. Families dealing with the injuries and traumas of combat will need a lot of support. The public in general needs to realize that although we have faced some pretty big giants, there will be many more for us.

I know each family’s struggles are as unique as the injuries of their service member.

One of the ways we were able to find help and healing was through an organization called Hope for the Warriors. We were able to apply for a Warrior’s Wish. Wishes fulfill a desire for a better quality of life or support a quest for life-gratifying endeavors for post-9/11 service members, their families, and families of the fallen who have sustained physical and psychological wounds in the line of duty.

We so badly wanted to take our kids, who were in high school and middle school, somewhere that we could all just celebrate and forget about everything we’d been dealing with and how our lives had changed forever. Hope for the Warriors granted our wish for our family to go on a trip of a lifetime to Disney World. To this day, our Disney trip remains one of the happy common bonds we all shared during the six grueling years of Terry’s medical care and recovery. We still have family dinner and talk about the fun things we did there. It was more than a trip, it was a bonding time we all hold on to in order to remind us of the power of family.

Currently, Terry continues with rehab and reconstruction. His injuries require a lot of hands-on care, and as a result, I still deal with chronic pain. But through it all, we remain committed to our family and find hope through our faith.

I am dedicated to helping other military families, and often get asked by others how they can help the caregiver and family of a wounded service member. Here are a few tips I wanted to share:

1. Reach out to one of those families and ask them specifically what it is they need. Sometimes all it takes is someone to ask.

2. Offer to sit with their service member so they can get out for an hour.

3. Give them the night off by helping with day-to-day tasks like yard work or providing a meal once a month.

4. Contact a local business that could provide self-care for the caregiver, something they usually do not get time to do (ex. salon, childcare, cleaning services, etc.).

5. Research work opportunities for the caregiver. Many families experience financial hardships as a result of the injured service member’s inability to work. Can a business or program offer opportunities for them to work from home to continue caring for their warrior but still generate an income?

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Photo by contributor.

Originally published: October 12, 2017
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