Caregiver profile: gina

Partners in Song, A Difficult Duet

Like many young men growing up in a strong military family, Jack Canaday did not seriously consider any other career. His father had been a Marine and went into the Air Force Reserve after the Vietnam War. Jack joined the Army after two years of college and was sent to Saudi Arabia as a PATRIOT missile crew member. When he returned in 1995, he arrived in Fort Hood where met his wife. Gina, also in the Army, was stationed there as well. The two shared a love of music and both were in bands – Gina a singer, Jack a drummer – and when they met, they fell hard and were married just seven days later. They will celebrate 20 years together in November.

Gina was no stranger to the military either. She had joined the Army at age 17 and her posts had been exciting as she moved up through the ranks. During Operation Desert Storm, stationed in Riyad, Saudi Arabia, she helped prepare briefs for General Norman Schwarzkopf. But after their first son was born in 1997, Gina left the Army to be a full-time mother, and Jack joined the Marine Corps. “It was really hard going from being military to being the spouse,” she says. “I planned on staying in the military for 20 years, but once my child was born everything changed.” They now have two sons, ages 13 and 17.

injured in action

After 9/11, Jack was selected to go to Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) school – the military bomb squad – and while he was there, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. Soon after graduating in 2003, he deployed to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, leaving his wife and young sons in North Carolina at Camp Lejeune. When he came back, Gina could see something was amiss but she couldn’t put a finger on it. And there was so little time. Less than a year later, Jack was deployed again, this time to Iraq for the First Battle of Fallujah. During another battle months later, his left eardrum was blown out, but he stayed in Iraq for another three months until January 2005, when he suffered a penetrating head wound. Having almost lost his right eye, and taking shrapnel to the brain, he was medivacked to Germany, where he remained for 3 weeks. He had earned his first of two Purple Hearts.

With the severity of Jack’s injuries, Gina expected that even after being returned to full active duty, he would stay stateside. But in reality, Jack would deploy three more times over the next seven years. “At the end of it,” Gina says, “he was broken, really broken. And I started screaming ‘There’s something wrong, there’s something wrong.’”

Jack’s anger was escalating and raising issues within the family, and Gina realized she had to abandon any thoughts of returning to military service. “Once [Jack] was hurt and I realized how much he needed me… I really couldn’t go back to work.” In 2009, they tried taking a family vacation to Disney World, only to find that nearly every aspect of the park set Jack off. Between the strangers, the noise, and the lines, he was overwhelmed. That was when Gina realized that Jack’s problems were not just going to fade away. One day after being startled, Jack almost pushed Gina down the stairs, and while thrashing about he punched her in her sleep. Gina knew Jack needed help to work through his issues but he refused. “I finally had to tell him either you go get help, or me and the kids are going to have to leave.”

“Just having that cheering squad behind me...made me feel like I was on the right track and I wasn't alone.”

Few people understood the degree to which Jack’s cognitive injuries were debilitating, Gina says. She would try to explain his anger or his forgetfulness only to feel like the “crazy military wife.” Finally, after his last deployment in 2012, the Marine Corps finally recognized that Jack was injured – that even though his injuries were invisible, they were real. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and medically retired in 2015. For Gina, this was a critical moment.

“I was lost with no help until 2012,” she said. “When [he was evaluated by the Medical Evaluation Board], that’s when I was like okay, well, now they’re admitting something’s wrong, I can reach out and get some help.” Through the Med Board process, Jack was assigned a Recovery Care Coordinator (RCC) who was pivotal in inspiring Gina to keep fighting to make sure Jack was getting the best care and also to get support herself.

With the help of the RCC, Jack received a referral and was accepted into Walter Reed’s National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), where he spent a month with doctors studying the extent of his brain injury. Having found support for Jack, Gina finally was able to begin to seek help for herself. She joined a support group at the Southern Caregiver Resource Center near San Diego, where they had moved before Jack’s last deployment, and finally met people who could relate to what she was going through. “That was the first time I’d ever sat down with people and they just understood. It was like a healing process for me to know that there are others out here, that I’m not alone,” she says. “Between the RCC and the support group, it was my saving grace, because I was completely out of energy to fight the battle anymore.”

gaining strength through operation family caregiver

Through Southern Caregiver Resource Center, Gina also found Operation Family Caregiver, a program that provides one-on-one coaches who help the spouses and other caregivers of service members as they navigate the unexpected difficulties that arise when their loved one returns home. The program was founded by the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving to offer support to military caregivers, who often don’t know where to turn when they suddenly find themselves as caregivers. Gina felt like she was in good shape and doing well, but doubt kept creeping in. Her Operation Family Caregiver coach helped her figure out how to look at problems differently and feel good about the progress she had made. “Just having that cheering squad behind me going, ‘You go girl, you got this, and let’s help try and strategize and problem solve, it really made me feel like I was on the right track and I wasn’t alone.”

Gina and Jack Canaday have spent more than 33 years of their combined lives serving in the U.S. military. Through nine Permanent Change of Station (PCS) orders, and five deployments, Gina says love is really the glue that keeps them together. Today, they are at the beginning of yet another adventure. In the absence of a military assignment, Gina and Jack recently decided to move their family to Florida, where they have no other relatives and a smaller support network. But Gina says she wouldn’t change a thing. “Our relationship is stronger than it’s ever been, and I really wouldn’t change anything,” she says today. “You know, he saved a lot of lives, and I’m proud of that... He never gives up, he just doesn’t give up. So if he’s not giving up, I’m not giving up.”

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