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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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I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by

Sea Fever, By John Masefield

Coming home from war can be the beginning of another journey, one that, at times, takes our wounded warriors into the unknown, the lonely sea and sky.

For Chris, it began in 2008, after a 15 month deployment. Chris came home from that deployment a different person, according to his wife Heidi. Gone was her funny, sweet, loving husband. The jokes had stopped. She said, “He was self-medicating with alcohol and would become angry over the smallest things.” As time passed, Chris’s health worsened and in 2011, Chris was given a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). By that point, the lack of sleep had triggered a dissociative episode. This started the process that would eventually determine that Chris should medically retire from service.

Chris’ health continued to worsen, and in 2013, Chris went missing. Thankfully, he was found unharmed… but would he next time? Chris’ hospitalization after he was found was the turning point. Together, he and Heidi worked hard to find solutions, get treatment, and learn as much about PTSD as they could. Chris sought alcohol dependency treatment as well. Though the years have passed, Chris still has PTSD. It impacts him daily. But he has learned ways to manage his PTSD. He has his tall ship.

Heidi is his star.

Being a caregiver for our wounded warriors is an incredible burden, but one born and sustained by love. Chris and Heidi met in the high school lunch line when Heidi was a freshman. They have been married for 17 years. On the tough days, and there are very tough days, Heidi always remembers to tell Chris that she loves him. “That’s one thing I have learned, he needs to hear I love him, no matter what his mood is.” Still, it is not an easy path. Heidi wakes up every day to all the household chores, gets the children where they need to go, and manages all the household finances. PTSD affects Chris’ short term memory and he can’t drive to the store, or help get their three children to school or lessons or balance the checkbook and manage the bills.

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Heidi, Chris and the kids, enjoying time together as a family. Though there are tough days, Heidi knows that sharing her experiences with other caregivers is important. “No one should feel alone and not know what help is out there for them.”

 

So, how do we keep the star from burning out? That is focus of the mission of our Hearts of Valor program and the Dole Foundation’s Caregiver Fellows program. Heidi has been a member of HOV since shortly after her husband’s diagnosis, and was recently selected as a 2015 Dole Foundation Caregiver Fellow. Of the 32 Fellows selected, 12 of them are participants in Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor program.

“When I first found Hearts of Valor, not long after my husband’s PTSD diagnosis, I was able to attend a retreat in Oklahoma City where I was able to learn so much about myself as a wife, caregiver, mother, and friend. The retreat truly taught me to be understanding, dedicated to my veteran but also to myself.” Heidi continues, “… Hearts of Valor has given me the opportunity to meet some of the greatest friends I have ever had and the chance to donate my time to help caregivers and wounded warrior families. No one should feel alone and not know what help is out there for them.”

As a Dole Fellow, Heidi will not only continue to build the network of support and friendship vital to the health and well-being of our wounded warrior caregivers, but to be a guiding force to caregivers nationwide. Senator Elizabeth Dole was inspired to launch the Elizabeth Dole Fellows Program after hearing from hundreds of caregivers across the country that they were not being given an opportunity to voice their challenges and needs. The mission of the program is to engage active military and veteran caregivers directly in the Foundation’s initiatives, allowing them to advise and play a leading role in raising awareness for the needs of caregivers throughout the nation.

When Heidi heard about the Dole Foundation accepting applications to be the voice of caregivers in her state, she was excited to help. As a volunteer with Operation Homefront since 2012, Heidi is perfect a perfect fit for this role, as she is selfless and incredibly kind. She believes that giving back is the most important part of being a caregiver and she is excited to travel with the other fellows to tell her story.

A tall ship and a star to guide her by.

As we continue to face the impact of 13 years of war on a generation, these guiding stars will remain critical to staying on course..

Learn More:

Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor

Hearts of Valor seeks to honor the service and sacrifice of the people who care for our nation’s wounded, ill or injured warriors by providing a community of support based on a foundation of empathy and mutual understanding. Twelve Hearts of Valor community members have been selected as 2015 Dole Fellows, and our Program Coordinator, Cheryl, us a Fellow Emeritus

Caring For Military Families: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation

(The Foundation believes) that our nation’s military caregivers need and deserve robust, effective support in light of the mental, physical, and financial challenges they face in caring for wounded warriors suffering from physical injuries, invisible wounds of war, or both.

 

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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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