Heartfelt Support for Family Caregivers by Barbara Stahura, CJF

Heartfelt Support for Family Caregivers by Barbara Stahura, CJF

The wounds of war affect everyone (caregivers) in a family

Emily Mather’s husband, Michael, came home from Iraq a far different man than when he deployed. Shot in the face by a sniper, he has TBI and PTSD. His short-term memory is severely compromised. He is not able to work. Emily has been his caregiver from the moment he came home. She has recently taken a leave of absence from her job as a customer service consultant at FedEx to better care for him. Her two children have experienced suffering as well because of Michael’s injuries, including behavior issues and other problems.

Megan and Jeremy Cain_n

Family are caregivers who suffer too.

Megan Cain’s husband, Jeremy, has TBI and PTSD from three explosions he experienced during his tours in Iraq. Declared 100 percent disabled by the Veterans Administration, Jeremy suffers from severe anxiety when out in public and significant short-term memory loss. “So everything circles around that,” explains Megan. “I even watch to see where he puts things down, since he won’t remember,” she says. Megan works part-time. When she is gone, Jeremy’s mother stays with him, since he cannot be left alone with their three young children.

Both Emily and Megan are only two of the legions of family caregivers now caring for thousands of severely injured military veterans, whose injuries include brain injury, PTSD, paralysis, burns, amputations, gunshot wounds, and sometimes “polytrauma (more than one injury).” Many of these caregivers are women—wives, mothers, sisters. Every day they face difficulties that test their resilience and resolve. They dearly need support but often cannot find it. In particular, when their men have one of the “invisible wounds” of these wars—traumatic brain injury or PTSD or both — the caregiver(s) faces people who wonder what the problem is. “He looks so normal.” “Why are you so angry, or frustrated, or depressed?” This common attitude can leave the family member feeling isolated and ignored.

Hearts of Valor


Look for Support

Fortunately, Emily, Megan, and hundreds of other caregivers of wounded veterans around the U.S. have found Hearts of Valor, one of many organizations under the umbrella of Operation Homefront. Hearts of Valor was formed to “connect caregivers and bring them together in a community of support,” says Sara Boz, director. Originally called “Wounded Warrior Wives,” the group changed its name to “Hearts of Valor” in 2012 so they can begin to include all post-9/11 caregivers. And since the word “valor” means “strength of mind or spirit that enables a person to encounter danger with firmness, personal bravery,” the new name more clearly describes the organization’s members.

  • To become a member of Hearts of Valor, a caregiver must meet these criteria:
  • A caregiver of a wounded, ill, or injured service member.
  • The service member’s wound, illness, or injury occurred after 9/11/2001.
  • The caregiver has supporting documents of the wound and/or injury.
  • For our purposes the definition of service member is a wounded, ill, or injured service member of any status (e.g., active, reserve, guard, or retired) and of any branch of military service.

Members can participate in occasional retreats, as well as ongoing local support groups and private online forums. Upon acceptance into the group, new members receive a personal care package with items just for them. Caregivers tend to neglect self-care, so the care package reminds them it’s good and permissible to take time just for themselves.

A source of support

The empathetic support provided by Hearts of Valor helps its members avoid compassion fatigue, a particular kind of burnout common to those caring for a severely ill or injured person. “Within two years of beginning their caregiving, many caregivers experience depression, suicidal thoughts, and even PTSD,” Boz says. “Having this kind of support helps prevent all that. They have someone to reach out to, and we do whatever we can to talk them through the awful moments.”

“The hardest part about these invisible wounds of TBI and PTSD,” says Emily, “is that people don’t understand. And when you retire and you’re not in the military community anymore, that’s more stress. Being part of Hearts of Valor with other spouses who do understand helps to release so much stress.”

For Megan, the hardest adjustment to her new life is “not really living in a calm environment. I’m hyperaware all the time. I’ve learned to watch Jeremy’s facial expression for any sign of anxiety, and I always have a plan to divert him when necessary. I can’t ever relax.”

Through participating in Hearts of Valor, she has “gained a great deal of perspective,” she says. “Connecting with other women who understand lets me know that it’s not just me, that I’m not crazy. That takes a huge burden off my shoulders.”

Barbara Stahura, certified journal facilitator, is co-author, along with Susan B. Schuster, MA, CCC-SLP, of After Brain Injury: Telling Your Story, the first journaling book for people with brain injury. Editor of Brain Injury Journey, she presents journaling workshops around the country to people with brain injury, family caregivers, and others, and is a member of the faculty of the Therapeutic Writing Institute and the Lash & Associates speakers bureau. She lives in Indiana with her husband, Ken Willingham, a survivor of TBI. http://www.barbarastahura.com


Special Collection on Brain Injury Journey Vol 1

Special Collection on Brain Injury Journey Vol 1

This article is posted with permission from Brain Injury Journey – Hope, Help, Healing, Vol 1, 2014.


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