To be a Marine you need to be pretty strong, both mentally and physically. But being a Marine Corps wife might take even more strength. Lucky for Breanna and Hector Perez, they were both up to the task.
Hector and Breanna met in 2010, when Hector was stationed at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, a base in southern San Bernardino County, California, about an hour inland from Los Angeles. While they hit it off right away, the timing wasn’t ideal. Breanna was starting school in Oceanside, California, over an hour away from Twentynine Palms, and Hector was set to leave on his fifth deployment at the end of the year.
But as they say, love conquers all. They talked on the phone, they video-chatted, they got to know each other by exchanging letters and visiting on weekends, and their relationship blossomed. Just before Hector deployed to Afghanistan, he proposed. And then he left.
Some women might have found it hard to overcome the separation and distance between them, but Breanna had grown up in a Coast Guard family and was accustomed to the military lifestyle. Besides, she was busy in school. Majoring in photography, Breanna spent 10-hour days in the lab or out shooting—photography was a labor of love.
A few months into his tour, Hector called and Breanna answered the phone, happy to talk with her fiancé. But Hector was calling with bad news: his vehicle had been out patrolling and ran over an IED. In the explosion, he was hit by the hatch, sucked into the vehicle, and “thrown around like a ping pong ball.” His injuries were frightening: he incurred a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and as a result his brain quickly began to swell. Meanwhile, the optic nerve in his left eye was almost severed, and his vision was impacted. His shoulder was dislocated, and there was damage to his knee, back, foot, and ankle.
Though his injuries were dire, flying home was not an option because of the swelling in Hector’s brain. High altitudes are likely to exacerbate swelling. Instead, he was medivacked to the nearest camp for recovery. “When they wanted to fly him back,” Breanna says, “he still said no because he didn’t want to come home without his brothers.” He spent the next two months in Afghanistan, helping in whatever way he could, before returning home with his unit in June of 2011.
Breanna had the same fierce determination as her fiancé. She was midway through her second semester when Hector was injured. She recalls, “It was very difficult for me mentally, and my teachers just literally did whatever they could to help me finish, help me finish with a good grade, stay focused. And at the same time, they were giving me that time at home to mentally heal because I couldn’t go to school 5 days a week anymore for 10 hours a day. I couldn’t just sit there in silence in the darkroom developing pictures because I would just have a meltdown. So really it was my teachers who gave me so much power to finish out that year.”
Once Hector was home, Breanna put her degree on the back burner and moved to Twentynine Palms so she could help him. The two got married, and Breanna became pregnant just a few months later. While this was a much more serious injury, it was not Hector’s first. He had incurred a TBI once before, but he simply picked up and moved on. His inclination this time was to do the same.
“His injuries hurt him,” Breanna says, “but he’s so mentally strong he said, ‘I’m in pain but I’ll just keep going.’” And in April 2012, just over a year after he had been injured, Hector deployed again.
Hector’s sixth deployment went fine and so he began eyeing a seventh. But this time, the doctor tasked with clearing him for duty raised some red flags. “That’s when they found his back issues and his leg issues and his eye,” says Breanna. “Because obviously, he knew that he couldn’t see very well out of his eye; he knew he had back pain and leg pain and whatnot, but it wasn’t going to stop him from fighting. He loves to go out there and do what they do best.”
Hector underwent a spinal fusion in 2014, and overnight Breanna went from the wife of a forcefully independent Marine to a devoted caregiver needed in an entirely new way. Hector relied on her for tasks that just the day before had been mundane: she lifted him out of bed, walked him to the bathroom, bathed him, stretched and massaged his legs.
“I’m a very nurturing person, so even though it was a huge change, it just kind of happened,” she says. But despite adapting quickly, she needed an outlet. A few friends had mentioned a program called Operation Family Caregiver, which offers assistance to the families and friends of returning service members and veterans. Through one-on-one sessions over six months, caregiver coaches provide tried and true guidance to help caregivers navigate the challenges they face when their loved one returns home. The program was founded by the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving to offer support to military families, who often find themselves in a position they are unprepared for and unequipped to handle.
“I don't ask for anything; I don't complain to anybody; I don't tell anybody my problems. I don't want people to know my struggles...[But Kassy] really helped me realize that even though I was saying I did enough for myself, I really did nothing for myself.”
“I don’t ask for anything; I don’t complain to anybody; I don’t tell anybody my problems; I don’t want people to know my struggles. And so, going into Operation Family Caregiver I was nervous,” Breanna recalls. “And then I met up with Kassy Mason, and she was so sweet and just made me feel comfortable… She really helped me realize that even though I was saying I did enough for myself, I really did nothing for myself.” Now, Breanna says, she makes sure to find time to take care of herself, which she knows ensures she will be better equipped to take care of her family, including her four-year-old daughter.
She is slowly making good on the promises she made to herself long ago. In December 2016, she finally finished school, after setting it aside for so long. She hopes eventually to launch a photography business, specializing in beginning- and end-of-life photography. These are the moments in life that ask the most of us, demanding both love and strength; how fitting that Breanna wants to bear witness to them.