23 Lives a Day

22 veterans +1 active duty service member take their lives every day. 23 lives a day, by their own hands.

One veteran takes his or her own life *EVERY 65 MINUTES* in this country. In the time it takes you to watch a television show or eat a meal, one veteran takes his or her own life.

It’s important to note that this statistic, while shocking, includes data from only 21 states and from veterans who are receiving VA care.  It does not include National Guard and  Reserve populations ( the majority of those deployed  to Iraq and Afghanistan were NG/R).  It does not include homeless veterans or suicides that may appear to be accidents (drunk driving accidents or overdoses). The actual statistic could realistically be 44 or 66 a day.

Tonight, my heart is heavy with the knowledge of one such veteran and the family of four he left behind. His wife is a dear friend of mine. We’ve had the opportunity to meet on more than one occasion–to hug, laugh, and cry together. This family has selflessly fought for and assisted numerous  veterans while simultaneously navigating and battling frustrating systems for themselves.

You can make a difference in many ways. Say “thank you” to the veterans you know, or those you meet. Learn about issues affecting our nation’s veterans. Find out how you can get involved locally by contacting veterans organizations (VFW, American Legion, Disabled American Veterans), churches, VA hospitals, or nursing homes. Visit http://www.familyofavet.com or http://www.facebook.com/lifeaftercombat to learn more about those who serve our country and the families that stand beside them. Share this information and help us raise awareness. Veterans make up approximately 1% of the US population–we can’t get this information out without your help.

If you would like to help this family by making a donation (100% of your tax-deductible donation will go directly to the family) please use the link below.

http://tinyurl.com/FOV-TN-Family

Need help? Contact the Veterans Crisis Line 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, or send a text message to 838255. http://www.veteranscrisisline.net/

Friends and family members can call 888-823-7458 to get help assisting the veteran. http://www.mirecc.va.gov/coaching/


Searching for…me

Our society largely defines us by our professions. Children are often asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” High school students take interest inventories and aptitude tests to help channel their ambitions toward strengths and passions. People want to know which college they have selected, which major course of study. Adults ask one another, “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?” upon introduction.

We are what we do. How, then, do we deal with losing that identity when our lives take a sudden turn?

My aspirations as a child included: nurse, cowgirl, clown, waitress, and teacher. After high school I pursued my BS in Elementary Education and Special Education. I was a young mother with an infant and a toddler at home, attending school during the day and studying into the wee hours of the night once the babies were in bed. I worked hard for that degree and completing it filled me with pride.

I spent several years working in an aide position and supplementing my hours and income by also substitute teaching, tutoring, and waiting tables as I worked my way into a full-time salaried teaching position in the district.

Eventually, I landed in a first grade classroom—which is where I had wanted to be from the start. I loved working with those little ones and watching their light bulbs come on throughout the school year. I enjoyed decorating my classroom, studying the curriculum, and writing lesson plans. I thrived in a creative environment where there was always something new to learn, and where I could share my enthusiasm for learning with 25 little brains ready to soak it all up. Reading, writing, ‘rithmetic…helping them become readers and writers.

Indeed, I have always been a learner. I was the child ready for school to start again before late July. I loved my Big Chief tablets and No. 2 pencils. There is a special kind of excitement when you open a brand new box of crayons. While I participated in the obligatory back-to-school protests throughout August, I was secretly excited about having a new desk, freshly laminated nametags, lockers, schedules…and mandatory library visits!

So, when I resigned my position in 2010 to stay home and care for Sean, it was devastating.

We were sitting the emergency room in the dark waiting for the pain medications to calm Sean’s migraine. I had called and asked my principal to arrange a substitute for the afternoon after discovering Sean in bed, confused and in pain, during my lunch break. ER trips were becoming part of our routine, as was calling at the last minute and requesting a sub to cover my room so I could handle an emergency with Sean. As I sat listening to the ticking of the clock on the wall I was hit with my new reality: I could not continue down both these paths, something had to give.

I felt my life was falling down around me and I was helpless to stop it. We were all struggling to keep moving forward. Sean was calling me multiple times a day while I was teaching, or coming into the school with me when he needed more supervision. I could no longer keep my head above water by pretending I could manage it all.

Leaving was devastating. I tried to put on my happy teacher face and pretend it was all for the best (which it was, although I didn’t feel that way). Stepping down from something I had worked so hard to achieve and thoroughly enjoyed doing was a stab to my heart.

Sean was a valuable volunteer in the kindergarten classrooms and wanted to continue when he was feeling well enough. I supported that decision, but it felt like he was getting my job, my friends and coworkers, my space. When I would express my feelings about giving up my job, he would feel guilty and I would end up comforting him because I resigned instead of having my own loss validated and soothed.

This fall, back to school has left me grieving. I even cried in the school supply aisle the other day, right in front of the boxes of 24 crayons. I feel a deep and pervasive loss, a longing I cannot stop. I know that sounds silly. People have suggested all types of fill-ins from volunteering, to subbing, to tutoring…but those don’t “feel” right for me right now. I walked into my old building the other morning and heard the familiar morning greetings and saw the friendly faces. My heart fell to my feet. I can’t fill this void with half-hearted substitutes, and I’m not even sure any more that this is what I’m meant to do.

I don’t regret leaving my job. It was a necessary step to aid in Sean’s recovery and I am proud to be a vital part of that process.

I realize now that this loss I’m struggling with is Sean’s loss, too. He gave up his civilian and military careers after his injury. He wrestles with his identity and what his future might hold.

And I do realize that my life is more than my profession or my (self-imposed) definition. My identity is multifaceted and perhaps now I will be open to learning more about who I am and my true purpose in this life as I face the unknown path ahead.

Sidebar:  I wrote about back to school success for Family Of a Vet:  7 Tips for Back to School Success

Family Of a Vet has an incredible *free* packet for teachers and parents about PTSD and TBI:  Parent and Teacher Packet


Operation Heal Our Patriots

IMG_0735-001

If you’ve ever wondered where you can strengthen your marriage through your relationship with God, eat meals prepared by a 5-star chef, spend days fly fishing in sparkling turquoise waters, hike to gorgeous waterfalls, relax in the beauty of God’s creation, AND get chased by the biggest, baddest bear in the park, then you need to check out Operation Heal Our Patriots and Samaritan’s Lodge in Port Alsworth, Alaska.

Accessible only by plane and boat, Samaritan’s Lodge sits on the shore of Hardenburg Bay in Lake Clark National Park.  This remote setting allows couples to leave behind the stress of day to day life and truly reconnect in the serenity of the wilderness.  For 15 weeks each summer a new group of 10 couples–wounded veterans and their spouses—arrives for a spiritual retreat and is met with an outpouring of community hospitality.

Throughout the week couples participate in marriage enrichment classes focused on their relationships with each other and their personal relationship with God.  The entire staff spends time praying for the participants and chaplains are available for one-on-one conversations.  Many couples choose to rededicate themselves to their marriage or commit their lives to God through baptism at the end of the week.

Physical activities include hiking, fishing, kayaking, and bear watching.  Couples may also opt to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the spectacular view of Tanalian Mountain over Lake Clark.  And since it’s the “Land of the Midnight Sun” there is plenty of daylight to enjoy that view!

This life, with its shift in relationship roles and demands can suck a relationship dry.  As we assume new roles and responsibilities our individual needs, along with those of the relationship, change. My perception of our marriage and Sean’s are markedly different. Factor in pain, brain injury, and mental health issues and the relationship needs get pushed aside.

I went into this experience worrying about what this enrichment would mean for me, for our relationship…what if we don’t want to hear what we are doing wrong? What if we are afraid to change, or don’t want to? What if we are tired and spent and just want to rest?

Yet, over the past several years I have learned that we get stagnant at home—trapped in our routine and our behaviors—and need the structure of an outside activity to help us feel and act “normal” again. This opportunity afforded us that chance and the support necessary to maintain a fresh attitude and commitment to using healthy tools at home.

Was this a pivotal life changing experience? Yes, without a doubt. I saw transformations not only in our lives, but in the lives of all who attended Lucky Week 7 with us. Did it fix everything? No. But it did open our eyes, ears, and hearts to start down the right path toward breathing new life into our marriage through our relationship with God. We ended our week by rededicating ourselves to our marriage by exchanging vows on the shore of Lake Clark.

In the past year I have spoken several times on “living in recovery” and what it looks like to be genuinely committed to one another. It does not mean disappointment and frustration don’t come, but rather that we choose not to embrace them and let them define our thoughts and actions. We take a deep breath, evaluate the situation, and work through it together.

Since returning home, I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on what we learned and practicing making deliberate choices to strengthen our bond to one another. We begin by consciously making choices to use kind and loving words and actions, spend quality time together, and setting aside our own needs to fill the other’s cup.

And now, the story of Bear 856.

In Katmai National Park and Preserve lives Bear 856.  One of the largest and most dominant bears in the park.

Before you are allowed to walk along the paths to the bear viewing platforms you must attend a 20 minute orientation session where you watch an informational video about the park and learn what to do if you encounter a bear. The first rule:   make lots of noise. The group in the video talks excitedly, while clapping their hands and shouting, “Hey, bear!” as they work their way down the path. This alerts the bear that you are in his neighborhood and gives him the opportunity to take an alternate route.

Of course it does.

As our group walked along the path a woman rushed past saying, “Big bear…big bear…” as she swiftly moved behind us. We laughed. Then he was there. 1000 pounds, nearly 6 feet tall, and just 15 feet behind Sean. Several of us started clapping and shouting, “Hey, bear!” as we moved backwards on the path.  Bear 856 was unimpressed with our show of confidence (and apparently hasn’t seen the video in a while) and continued forward. Our guides directed us off the main path and as we moved into the thick brush of the smaller bear paths we were split into two groups. Bear 856 wandered off the main path and between our two groups before making his way toward the main river.  I suspect he was playing a game of “Terrorize the Tourists” on his way to the fishing hole.

The tales of the Great Bear Hunters grew as the week progressed and the stories will live on for years to come.

PicMonkey Collage

Learn more:

Couples rediscover hope in Alaska

Operation Heal Our Patriots

Samaritan’s Purse

Lake Clark National Park

Port Alsworth, Alaska

Katmai National Park and Preserve

Bear 856


Warrior Trials

In June Sean spent two weeks in West Point, NY, along with over 100 other wounded soldiers and veterans, training for and competing in the 2014 Army Warrior trials.  Participants competed in cycling, archery, swimming, sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball, and track and field events.  Sean earned gold medals in tandem cycling, shot put and discus and silver medals in the 100-meter dash and the 200-meter dash.  He has been selected to compete on Team Army in the Warrior Games this fall against members of the other armed services.  The Warrior Games are a partnership between the Department of Defense and the U.S. Olympic Committee Paralympic Military Program.

“Sports and competition mean a lot. It gives me some direction and some purpose– a goal to achieve– and it keeps me in shape. It keeps me out of mischief,” said SSG Johnson. “It is critical to my recovery and health. It improves my outlook on life and future and gives me a way to give back to the Army and military.”

The 2014 Warrior Games are scheduled for September 28 – October 4 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
Photo Credit:  Teia Atkins

Photo Credit: Teia Atkins

Army Trials Cycling Competition

Photo Credit: Teia Atkins

Day 2 Track and Field

Photo Credit: Todd Weiler

Day 2 Track and Field (1)

Photo Credit: Todd Weiler

Day 2 Track and Field (2)

Photo Credit: Todd Weiler

Army Trials Track Competition (3)

Photo Credit: Chris Roxas

Sean was featured in several articles during the trials:

Warrior Games possible in Aberdeen veteran’s future

Local veteran to compete in Warrior Games this fall

‘You may be Wounded, Ill or Injured but You’re not Defeated,’ tandem cyclist says at US Army Warrior Trials

Vision impairment won’t stop wounded veteran at Warrior Games Trials

For more information on the Warrior Games, please visit the US Army Warrior Transition Command’s website: http://www.wtc.army.mil/warrior_games/index.html


Hidden Heroes

The blisters have nearly healed. It’s been almost three weeks since I traveled DC with a marvelous group of nearly 60 men and women who are part of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s Caregiver Fellows Program.  During this trip I reconnected with old friends and met new friends I’ve only known online.  We spent time sharing our stories and experiences with one another and forging a special bond that can only be felt by those who have been through similar experiences.  And we walked for miles on the endless marble and concrete that is Capitol Hill.

We spent Thursday on Capitol Hill meeting individually with our congressional leaders to present the findings of the newly released RAND study Hidden Heroes:  America’s Military Caregivers and to explain why this study matters, why these statistics are more than numbers on a page, and to give a face to the 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers in our nation.

That morning Senator Patty Murray introduced S.2243 – Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act of 2014. A related bill was previously introduced in the House by Representative Elizabeth Etsy. H.R.3383 – Caregivers Expansion and Improvement Act of 2013. You can watch Senator Murry introduce her bill here Murray Introduces Major Military and Veteran Caregiver Bill.

On Friday we attended a Joining Forces event at the White House where First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, along with former First Lady Rosalynn Carter and Senator Dole, announced programs and initiatives designed to support caregivers of the nation’s veterans and active duty service members. You can watch these announcements at this link Support for Military and Veterans’ Caregivers.

While being invited to the White House (and sitting in the front row!) was immensely exciting, the event had a larger impact as I looked around the White House reception and realized that everywhere I looked was the familiar face of a caregiver.  For the first time ever we had a collective voice on a national level, a voice that reached far beyond the walls of the White House into the homes of other caregivers who, like us, have been fighting for years to be heard.

Empowering.  To be part of a group gathered with common concerns and goals working to make changes in our own lives, and the lives of others.  To reflect on the past eight years and recall how utterly alone I felt when this journey started.  To realize, at last, it was time to address the needs of the caregivers.  We will not be still.

Learn more about the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and Hidden Heroes:  The National Coalition for Military Caregivers at www.elizabethdolefoundation.org.

You can read the entire RAND report entitled  Hidden Heroes:  America’s Military Caregivers at this link http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR499.html.

#DoleFellows #hiddenheroes

Cherry Blossoms in full bloom

Cherry Blossoms in full bloom

Dole Fellows with Congresswoman Susan Davis, Senator Elizabeth Dole, and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi

Dole Fellows with Congresswoman Susan Davis, Senator Elizabeth Dole, and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi

White House

The White House

Front and nearly center in the East Room

Front and nearly center in the East Room


I’m melting!

I’m tired, therefore, this post isn’t up to par.  I’m including it simply to satisfy my compulsive need to tell the complete story in chronological order.

Ohhh! You cursed brat! Look what you've done! I'm melting! Melting! Oh, what a world! What a world!

Ohhh! You cursed brat! Look what you’ve done! I’m melting! Melting! Oh, what a world! What a world!!

After nearly seven years (long, incredibly frustrating years), Sean officially retired from the US Army Reserve on February 11, 2014. Hallelujah!

A process that consumed our lives for many years…a bittersweet ending for a soldier who dedicated his life to serving his country…a relief for his wife who has grown weary of fighting systems that should be designed to help.

So, while the Oz saga from Ft. Riley has played itself out and the Wicked Witch has met her demise (if you’ve been following our blog, this makes sense, I swear), it was not without getting in a final jab. I was required to become Sean’s legal guardian in order for him to “obtain any and all retirement benefits during his lifetime” due to an incompetency ruling.

Recap:

March 2007- ineligible for medical board due to “unexplained physical symptoms” (undiagnosed PTSD and TBI)

July 2007 – PTSD diagnosed

December 2007 –  TBI screening

March 2008 – TBI diagnosed, medical evaluation board (MEB) initiated

April 2008 to January 2010- nooooooothing……

January 2010 – testified before House Committee on Veterans Affairs regarding “Seamless Transition” between DoD and VA systems

February to May 2010 – multiple appointments

June to November 2010 – multiple complaints to get MEB paperwork completed

2011 – mostly nothing……

<insert intermission>

January 2012 – OOPS, case was terminated in June 2011 (Ft. Riley claimed we missed a deadline that we were not informed of, we were not notified that the case had been terminated)

June 2012 – records sent to Ft. McCoy to start new MEB under IDES

<insert theme from “Jeopardy”>

February 2013 – records arrived in Ft. Carson

March to May 2013 – repeat all examinations, tests, and paperwork from 2010 as it was all expired

June 2013 – MEB NARSUM sent to Physical Evaluation Board (PEB)

December 2013 – PEB rated 100% vision loss due to TBI, and 70% PTSD

January 2014 – notified that due to incompetency statement in NARSUM a legal guardian would need to be appointed, POA was not sufficient for payment/benefit purposes

February 2014 – officially medically retired

Bout damn time.


Tough Pill to Swallow

IMG_6933

 

Look at that mess of pills.  Some are shiny or brightly colored, the white ones come in different sizes.  They all go into Sean’s stomach every day.  That’s right, this is *1* day’s worth of medication.  You would think that with all these pills he’d be feeling pretty darn good every day.  I’ve seen first hand how each pill affects him, and the adverse effects when he does not take them.  I believe that (at least to some degree) they are helping him, and his doctors agree that he’s been more stable than not in the past two years.  Sean himself doesn’t want to make major changes to his medication regimen because he remembers how he felt and acted pre-medications.

2013 was a long year.  Sean had more pain than normal, experienced more periods of depression, contracted a nasty unidentified illness while in Mexico (he didn’t even drink the water) that took months of recovery, was diagnosed with gastroparesis (stomach is too slow to empty), and had more trouble generally accomplishing his goals.  We scaled way back, while still trying to participate in a few events to get ourselves engaged.  The past two months his migraines have been out of control and his pain levels over all have consistently increased.  The pain meds don’t seem to be helping the way they should.  I feel very helpless.  Tomorrow he will be seeing his doctor and I have been reviewing his daily health notes.  It’s sad to see the marked decline since October.  And scary.

I have accepted that we will have good days followed by bad days and that the cycle will continue.  I no longer panic every time he has a difficult day or a new symptom or weird behavior.  But when I see a consistent march downward, it frightens me.  Not because I fear the immediate future, but because no one knows what his health will be a year from now, or five years, or ten.  Is this a sign of what’s to come?

Last night was a particularly bad night.  Incredible pain.  Pain meds were no help.  He was up and down all night long, unsteady on his feet and needing help getting around.  He finally went to sleep around 7 AM this morning.  His poor dog was up all night, too, worrying over him and trying to let me know that his dad wasn’t feeling well.  I am praying they both sleep well tonight.