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As part of our annual “11Days, 11 Stories” series honoring Veterans this month, we are spotlighting the stories of veterans we have met through our work here at Operation Homefront:

 by Christy O’Farrell

As Heidi Woodring’s husband, Christopher, was preparing to swear in to the Army, having enlisted the day before on Sept. 10, 2001, the twin towers were hit in New York City. At home in New Jersey, about two hours away from Christopher, Heidi was pregnant with their middle child, and her brother’s girlfriend called, urging her to turn on her TV. “I knew right then my life was going to change,” Heidi said. “I just didn’t know how.”

Fast forward one year: Christopher deploys, for the first of three times, to Afghanistan. When he returned home to Fort Riley, Kansas, Heidi noticed he seemed distant, and sometimes angry, but she didn’t worry too much because she thought it was to be expected, and she knew others who were the same way. Chris’ second deployment was extended to 15 months. While home on R&R, Heidi became pregnant with their youngest, and Chris returned a month before she was born.

That time, now at Fort Hood, Texas, Heidi noticed Chris’ drinking was increasing, and he still seemed angry at times. Reflecting on her experience, Heidi said she initially was angry too because she had always lived near, and been dependent on her family and her husband, not even learning to drive until later in their marriage. “I was thrust into the middle of Tornado Alley, not knowing how to do anything, with no friends to lean on,” she said. She made friends with other Army families through the family readiness group, knowing that people generally get more out of a situation when they invest time and effort into it.

It was during Chris’ third deployment that he injured his hand using faulty equipment, and had to have his thumb partially amputated, suffering nerve damage. But his main injury is post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis they received in 2010 after Chris went into a “huge downward spiral” and was hospitalized, Heidi said. The Army medically retired Chris in August 2012 as a sergeant with nearly 11 years of service. He had first worked as a petroleum supply specialist, and was reclassified a few times.

That’s when Heidi found herself with a new title — caregiver — one she wasn’t sure fit her, didn’t fully understand, and questioned whether she could live up to. But with help from Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor program, a nationwide network of support groups for caregivers to injured service members and veterans, Heidi grew into the role that required her to be more independent and self-reliant. At a May 2011 HOV retreat in Oklahoma City that she describes as “life-changing,” Heidi soon learned she had not only enough strength within herself to handle her own responsibilities, but extra to share with others in the same position.

Now it was Heidi’s turn to serve. After the family moved to Las Vegas, to be closer to Heidi’s grandparents, she went in search of help, she said, because service members often have trouble asking for help themselves. She wasn’t scared, she was determined — to learn everything she could about PTSD and community resources. So she walked into Operation Homefront’s office in Las Vegas, and met Annie Baca, Nevada’s executive director. “That was probably the best decision I’ve ever made,” Heidi said. Annie pointed her in the right direction and eventually became a friend.

“Annie saw something in me,” said Heidi, who over the next several years, as a peer facilitator for OH’s Hearts of Valor program, grew the Nevada chapter from three members to nearly 80.

Annie remembers how sincere Heidi was when they met, wanting to share what she was learning with others who also needed help. “Her confidence and knowledge has inspired many across the nation,” Annie said. “I’ve seen Heidi personally assist many individuals in attaining benefits they needed. It has been an honor to have her on our Operation Homefront team as a core volunteer. She’s been one of the most reliable, dedicated volunteers throughout my tenure. She has definitely raised the bar …”

Operation Homefront gave Heidi its President’s Volunteer Service Award for her countless hours with HOV and at every Las Vegas event OH organized since 2012. It’s something of a mutual admiration club because Heidi says she may be Operation Homefront’s biggest fan, crediting the organization with helping turn her life around after Chris’ diagnosis. “I just absolutely adore the organization,” she said. “You’re not going to find a bigger supporter.”

Volunteering for military and veterans’ organizations is both empowering and rewarding, she said, when she sees how they can lift up people who need it.

Her own experience as a military spouse and mom influences her approach to volunteering. Mother to Alyssa, 19; Christopher, 15; and Kaylee, 9; Heidi allows that military life was hard, especially on her oldest. “It gets a little crazy,” she said. And they all have had to make big adjustments during the transition to civilian life, she said. For example, they don’t often visit the closest military base, Nellis AFB, Las Vegas, because it “doesn’t feel right,” and they have had to get used to getting paid once a month instead of twice. “We had to start our life all over again, [and] establish relationships,” she said. “It was a struggle.”

Heidi has been such a dependable helper at various OH functions including Back to School Brigade and holiday events that Annie recently turned the tables on her, insisting that Heidi attend the March 2017 Homefront Celebration, a military spouse appreciation dinner, as one of the 180 guests. That didn’t stop Heidi from helping in the morning, setting up tables and gift bags. But then she went home to do her hair and don her dress.

“That was amazing,” she said of the evening. She sat with women from her Hearts of Valor group, and all were touched by the speaker, a military wife and veteran. “There wasn’t a dry eye at our table,” she said. “She was very inspiring.”

The Homefront Celebration provides a rare opportunity for military spouses to dress up and be catered to, while socializing with others who can relate to their lives. Part of the fun is the glamour. In this case, Heidi said, that meant a beautiful venue, Red Rock Country Club, and a red carpet for taking selfies. “We don’t go to military balls anymore,” she said.

“I just noticed women who I’ve seen, and have been kind of down, were smiling and laughing and having fun,” Heidi said. “For me, it made it worth it.”

A few months ago, Heidi had to take a step back from some volunteering because she also cares for her grandparents, and as a proponent of self-care, she knew she shouldn’t take on too much. A friend became the Hearts of Valor group facilitator. The support group meets once or twice a month, and attendance varies, with a dozen people coming sometimes and fewer on other occasions. Often, caregivers’ schedules are not entirely under their own control, so it can be difficult to know when they are available for meetings. The main goal is to give members a chance to talk about their issues, she said, and to share friendship and resources.

Though she sometimes misses her old, pre-caregiver life, Heidi said an upside has been personal growth, which was inevitable as she got the hang of managing the household, operating as a single mom at times. “I’m not the same person I was.”

This blog is part of our “11 Days. 11 Stories” series where we seek to honor veterans. Check back here daily through Nov. 11 to read stories of those we’ve served. You can also join in the conversation with us by sharing stories of your own.

Through Facebook or Twitter, please use the hashtag #RaiseYourHand to share your own inspirational story or picture of your military experience or a veteran in your life.

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Our long-time partner, Eckrich, joined us to surprise a veteran family in Corvallis, Oregon with a shopping spree at their local Safeway grocery store. But it didn’t end there. Nichole Hetland, caregiver and wife of medically retired U.S. Army veteran Jeremy, recounts the experience:

I want to share with you all, the amazing day we had yesterday!!!

I am a part of the Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor (program) as the caregiver of my husband during his recovery from injuries sustained in combat and while on active duty. Someone from Operation Homefront contacted me last week and asked if myself and my family could attend an event on behalf of their organization. We were told only to show up at the said location in Corvallis and the rest would be a surprise.

Since I have never been asked to do something like this, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. We showed up to the location we were given (Safeway store in Corvallis) and introduced to a great deal of very important people. Right after that introduction, we were asked if we wanted to go on a shopping spree? Seriously? Ummmmm, YES of course!!!

We were led through the store by the partners of Eckrich, Safeway, Operation Homefront, Oregon State University cheerleaders, their trusty OSU Beaver mascot, former Pro NFL football player Mike Hass, and an array of others. I was still in shock by the whole thing. I felt so shy (which most of you know is not a character trait of mine) but I think it was the overwhelming realization that we were actually on a shopping spree.

We ended up filling 2 carts full of groceries and I even got diapers, which is a huge expense when you have a newborn (yay!). I was grinning ear to ear. The kids were loving it. Shelves full of goodies and they didn’t have to ask mom and dad if it was ok to buy them….they just tossed them in the cart!
It was amazing and that wasn’t even the end of it. We dropped our carts off at checkout and walked out front to an awaiting stage. I thought to myself, “there’s more?”

We were told to stand up on the stage while they read my husband’s military bio. They then proceeded to say, “on behalf of Eckrich and Safeway, for being a hometown hero and fighting on behalf of our country for our freedom… a year of FREE groceries at Safeway!”

What?

Did I hear that correctly?

1 year of groceries….FREE…..!!!!

52 weeks of groceries at Safeway!!!!

“Wow” is all I could think! This was an amazing surprise and an even bigger gift for our family. Groceries is probably one of the biggest expenses we have monthly, so this is going to lighten our load tremendously!

I am so grateful to the people who chose our family to take part in this event. I am so thankful and grateful to Safeway and Eckrich for their generosity! As well as Operation Homefront for what they do for our veterans.

It was also pretty cool to get to hang out with former NFL football player Mike Hass. What a great, down to earth guy. We definitely felt the love and support from everyone that was there with us.

That was my amazing day!!! Can you believe it? I still can’t….so heart-warming….thanks to all!!!”

This surprise is part of the ongoing campaign by Eckrich to honor, thank, and support military families through its partnership with Operation Homefront. Eckrich, now in its sixth year of the partnership, has donated more than $2.5 million to the organization since 2012.

 

 

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When they met, he was young, energetic and ready to defend his country. She was drawn to his courage and his sense of purpose and honor. They fell in love. They got married. And together, they brought beautiful children into the family.

But then, the unexpected happened…

retreatblog1This is the way the story begins for most women who are caregivers of wounded warriors. Each one understands the risks of loving someone who may deploy to a combat zone. But no one is prepared for what can happen as a result of injury.

“Being in the military gives a service member a strong sense of purpose,” said Sara Boz, Director of our Hearts of Valor program. “If they are injured and ultimately transition out of the military, they can be deeply impacted, by the loss of identity, as well as the injuries.” Some effects of PTSD and TBI take time to surface and even longer for the service member to acknowledge they need help.

The wounded warrior may display anger, depression, or isolation which affects the entire family. The caregiver, usually the wife, often bears the burden. They feel the pressure of having to hold the family together through painful procedures, flashbacks, paperwork, therapy, and the normal tasks of taking care of kids, homework, dinner, household chores, etc.

retreatblog2So what do these women need? Support and encouragement, and time to focus on themselves.  Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor retreats are designed to provide much-needed respite. This week, 27 caregivers attended one such retreat in San Antonio, Texas.

The retreat connects caregivers with each other, provides education on complex topics, and offers time to relax and regroup.

The stories are difficult to comprehend. “These women are young – in their late 20s and early 30s – and they have absolutely no time for themselves,” said Sara. “I had a couple women, who have young children, tell me that they don’t do Christmas because they are so exhausted they don’t have the energy to put up a tree.”

After one small group discussion, a caregiver walked back to the meeting room with tears in her eyes. “I’m so glad I came. No one else understands what I go through every day.”

retreatblog3The lives they live are illustrated in the sessions provided to help them: trauma and relationships, compassion fatigue, PTSD, TBI, caregiving and financial readiness. “The staff and presenters were phenomenal and so kind,” said Tania, one of the attendees. Small group discussions, led by topic experts, were spaced throughout each day so caregivers could fully discuss each topic, share their concerns and learn ways to apply the knowledge to their daily lives.

As the retreat wrapped up, each caregiver got to “chart” their emotions before and after a few days of time on their own. When they arrived at the retreat, the caregivers said they felt “worried,” “tired” and “overwhelmed.” By the time they headed home, their words changed to “relaxed,” “motivated,” “refreshed” and “excited.”

retreatblog4While their journeys are far from over, the news is hopeful. With therapy and time, many service members see significant improvement in the ways they deal with their visible and invisible wounds. So the pain of the past, can become the lesson of the present and the hope for a remarkable future with their families.

View more pictures of the retreat.

Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor program helps caregivers navigate their journey of caring for their injured service member. The program offers support groups around the country and a network for those who are struggling. Generous donors make programs like this possible – give a gift today and help us make a difference for families like those represented at our retreat.

For the retreat, special thanks goes to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, who sponsored five caregivers to attend the retreat, and Fisher House who provided Hero Miles to fly several caregivers to the retreat. In addition, the following businesses offered donations or discounted services: Menger Hotel, Ava’s Flowers, Hard Rock Café, Mobile Om yoga, and Geronimo Trevino III and the Geronimo Band.

The presentations were led by staff from the University of Texas Health Science Center’s Strong Star program, Operation Family Caregiver (a program of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving), the Military Child Education Coalition, the Child Mind Institute and classes from Shelly McCulloch Whitehair, CPA, CIA, CGMA, a financial coach for Operation Homefront.

 

 

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“This didn’t just change his life, but the whole family.” Cheryl Gansner, Dole Fellow and Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor Program Coordinator. Gansner joins us as a guest blogger for PTSD Awareness Month.

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In July of 2006, Cheryl’s husband, Bryan, was severely injured by an IED in Iraq six weeks before coming home

 In July of 2006, my husband, Bryan, was severely injured by an IED in Iraq six weeks before coming home. As a social worker I knew that he might experience some form of PTSD. Once he arrived at Walter Reed, I kept my eyes open for any signs. Initially, he didn’t seem to have nightmares or jump at loud noises and he seemed in good spirits (the morphine may have helped).

 

A few weeks later, with daily surgeries, I was providing non-stop care and he was receiving a constant stream of meds. I noticed that he wasn’t sleeping in spite of heavy doses of narcotics. He said he was re-living the trauma every time he closed his eyes. Apparently his brain was trying to process what his body had experienced.

He finally fell asleep one night for a few hours and the nurse came in to take vitals. It was dark in the room. He started screaming at the nurse saying she was an Iraqi that had come to kill him. She quickly left the room. He looked absolutely traumatized when I turned on the light. His skin was gray and his pupils were hugely dilated.

That night started a long process of counseling and recovery. We spent years trying to adjust his medication combination. He spent his nights down in the basement in the recliner trying to sleep and I was alone in our bedroom. He shut out family, friends…everyone. This went on for about three years.

I was at the end of my rope. I was burnt out from my job as a social worker and caregiver. I finally got some direction when Bryan became sick with a terrible double ear infection that threw off his balance. When I took him to the doctor, he was asked what medications he was taking. Bryan said “none.” My jaw nearly hit the floor. I knew things had taken a turn for the worse, but I didn’t know he had taken himself off his meds.

When we talked more, he said he was having the urge to jump out of the car or drive off bridges and overpasses. I got him to see his psychiatrist at the VA right away and he started on a different combination of meds.

Unfortunately, things got worse. He wanted to divorce, quit his job and live in his parents’ basement. I was a complete wreck and felt like I was watching him slip away. I decided to talk to a friend/mentor about what was going on. She told me about a clinical trial using Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) for TBI and PTSD. Bryan felt it was worth a shot since it wasn’t another medication and was minimally invasive.

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The treatment helped and he was on half the medication. I noticed that he was laughing again, engaging in conversation and doing well in his job. Since then, he has had two more rounds of HBOT which have also helped.

 

 

 

Does he still struggle? Yes, PTSD hasn’t gone away and he isn’t cured. But we have learned to work together as a team. It has taken years, more than nine years to be exact, and lots of patience but now he tells me when he needs to leave the room, or leave a location altogether. And I don’t get upset about it anymore. I connect with friends to vent and get ideas on what I can do to help him. Having a support system is vital in a post-injury life.

Cheryl, Bryan and Emory at their recent vow renewal ceremony in Hawaii.

Cheryl, Bryan and Emory at their recent vow renewal ceremony in Hawaii.

 

We’ve been through a lot together. Today WE are stronger. I say ‘we’ because this didn’t just change his life, but the whole family. Recently, we renewed our vows on the exact beach we got married on. I am so thankful that we didn’t give up and that my hero chose to carry on instead of letting it defeat him!

 

If you are struggling with the challenges from PTSD, reach out for help. Don’t try to face this alone. If you are a caregiver, join Hearts of Valor and reach out to friends. Together, you can educate yourself on PTSD.

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Putnam Family at hospital while roof repaired

The Putnams, in the hospital with their newest family member as their roof was being repaired.

Sometimes, you can do everything right and still have something go wrong. That’s what happened to Joseph and Dawn Putnam, when their excitement of owning their first home and the impending arrival of their infant son was quickly dampened by water leaking from the ceiling.

For Joseph, joining the Army was a natural choice for him. He grew up in a military family—several family members including his uncle and grandfather had served. Joseph’s father served in the Army and Marines, was a Gulf War Vet, and saw service in Iraq. Joseph joined in 2006, went into airborne infantry, was stationed at Fort Riley, and found himself in Iraq from 2007-2008.

Dawn and Joseph used his VA loan to buy a house. The home had been inspected during the winter, when there was a lot of snow and the home passed the VA inspection. Soon after moving, though, the family noticed water leaks. Dawn and Joseph were notified that a new roof would be needed in order to maintain home insurance. The family—with Dawn pregnant—started worrying how they could afford a new baby, pay for roof repairs in excess of $10,000, and became concerned that the home could develop a mold problem. Dawn started a Facebook page “I am a Veterans Wife” and one of her followers told her about Operation Homefront. Dawn and Joseph applied for roof repair assistance.

Through Home Depot funding, Operation Homefront was able to approve funding for the roof repair. The contractors began work and Dawn began labor. The roof repairs were completed while Dawn gave birth to the couple’s second child. Their infant son named Russell, in honor of Joseph’s friend who was killed in action, was brought back to a cozy, safe home.

Dawn reflects “When you have kids and are afraid of being dropped by the insurance and the mortgage companies, then you are in a beyond scary situation. When we found out that Operation Homefront was going to help, the elephants left our chests. We were so stressed out.” Then we were so relieved.”

“Now we are so grateful and cannot begin to describe how relieved we were that OH could help. Joseph has PTSD and of course, any stress is bad, but this was really bad with the roof situation. You helped my husband; you were there when there was no one. We will be forever grateful to Operation Homefront, and we really love you guys,” added Dawn.

vets-day_blog_thumbOperation Homefront is honored to be able to answer the call of our brave men and women in uniform when they need it the most. We are able to do so because of the amazing supporters who stand beside us. If you would like to help answer the call, join us at www.operationhomefront.net/answerthecall

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saritajason

We are grateful for women like Sarita, who stand strong beside their warriors and fellow caregivers.

When Sarita met Jason, little did she know that her love for him would take her on a very unexpected journey. But it ended up being a path that allowed her to answer the call to help wounded warrior caregivers, because she would become one herself.

Sarita Pettus-Wakefield met Jason Wakefield and developed a long distance relationship with him, via email, while he was deployed. Jason was a staff sergeant in the Air Force and Sarita was an air traffic controller trainee. They both loved airplanes and soon they fell in love with each other.

And then things began to change.

Jason deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq and suffered exposure to smoke and burning trash and battled a parasite for two years. (He still deals with ongoing asthma and gastrointestinal issues.)

While in Iraq, he injured his ankle and received a minor TBI from a mortar blast. Then came a head-on car collision in Afghanistan, which resulted in another TBI. Jason also battled anxiety disorder and severe PTSD as a result of his combat experiences. But Sarita’s challenges were just beginning.

One week after they got engaged, the true nature and extent of his injuries came crashing in, literally. He was in a severe car wreck that was related to his PTSD. The accident resulted in severe leg injuries and several surgeries. In response, Sarita tried to be the super-perfect everything – fiancee’, caregiver, career woman and grad student. She did all this while juggling regular doctor appointments for Jason and dealing with the effects of his ongoing anxiety and PTSD. She tried to keep everything running smoothly, to make life easier for Jason. It all became too much for her to handle.

One day, she happened to be watching TV and saw an interview with Cheryl Gansner, program coordinator for Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor program and Elizabeth Dole Fellow. “Cheryl was like an angel and I literally sat there crying like a total nut at the TV…so happy and relieved that there was help out there!” said Sarita.

After watching the program, she realized that if she tried to do too much, she was no good for anyone. So she became a member of Hearts of Valor for support, and she, and Jason, decided to simplify things. They would both focus on school. And they eventually got married too. “I feel really happy, relaxed, and settled into my role of helping my husband.  We spend two days a week at the VA on average and one day a week with the Brain Center so we stay busy,” said Sarita.

As a member of Hearts of Valor, Sarita loved meeting fellow caregivers who understood that, while things may look great from the outside, invisible wounds are no less real and can make life complicated. It was so nice “to meet other women in my area to whom I could say terms like PTSD or TBI without getting a pity or confused look,” said Sarita.

She also decided to volunteer to lead a support group for Hearts of Valor caregivers. “Jason and I went through a really rough time trying to find help and I wanted to help ease some of the stressors that other caregivers go through and help them navigate how and where to get help,” she said. She’s been leading the group for two years. The caregivers really enjoy the camaraderie of meeting with other women. “My group opts for art projects, like painting and pottery, and I think art ‘therapy’ is helping all of us relax. Group members reach out to each other… and I see pics of them hanging out with each other (on Facebook) which totally makes me smile!! We are learning to belly dance at this month’s meeting. I have had women come to support groups in tears and leave laughing. Support groups work!”

We are grateful for women like Sarita, who stand strong beside their warriors and fellow caregivers.

Hearts of Valor is a network of people caring for wounded, ill or injured service members, created and maintained by Operation Homefront. To find out more about how you can answer the call and help military, veteran and wounded warrior families, visit www.operationhomefront.net/answerthecall .

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Strobach-operation-homefrontThere are many reasons Adam Strobach was motivated to leave his small-town home in Wisconsin and answer the call to join the Army —no jobs in his small hometown, a desire to see the world, and a feeling of gratitude to his country.

His journey began when the Army sent Adam to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he met his wife Katey—a self-professed military brat. The two married and had a son. Life was good. Like any military family, they endured time apart as Adam completed two deployments to Iraq.

During his last deployment in 2013, Adam was injured. The couple’s second son was born in January 2013, and Adam was medically discharged from the Army a month later. As Adam sought to recover from his injuries, the family learned to adjust to their new existence.

During his transition, Adam was told that the wait time for his benefits to arrive would be about 60 days. The wait time stretched from 60 days to three, four, five, and then six months. Because the family did not have enough savings and no income, they were unable to live on their own. Sadly, Adam, Katey, and their two sons had to move into the basement of Adam’s brother.

The couple gave the American Legion power of attorney to help them navigate the VA benefits process, and an Army Wounded Warrior (AW2) advocate was assigned to Adam and Katey. In the meantime, the family fell farther behind on their monthly bills.

Katey and Adam’s AW2 told them to submit an application to Operation Homefront for financial assistance. While the couple initially requested help to pay their car loans and insurance they ended up getting money to help with buying groceries, critical baby needs, and money for travel. This freed up money to help cover their other bills.

Katey states, “I could not believe how quickly the cards came. The gift cards arrived the next day after we were approved. It was super fast.” This was really helpful and came when it was really needed.”

The VA benefits have started; and while the family is still playing catchup, they hope to be on track by tax season.

Katey and Adam are optimistic about the future. Katey shared some good news: “We are able to pay our current bills and are paying on past due balances. Adam has a job offer and reference from one of his former military sergeants…which will help the family finances even more.”

vets-day_blog_thumbOperation Homefront is honored to help military families, like the Strobach family, get through unexpected tough times. Learn more about how anyone can answer the call and help Operation Homefront serve our veteran and military families at www.operationhomefront.net/answerthecall .

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