Caregiver Profile: Dee
Every Step Forward Started with Prioritizing Herself
The opening act of Dee’s story is fairly conventional. It begins with a high school romance, early marriage to a fresh-faced recruit, and an adventurous move to Naval Air Station Barbers Point in Hawaii. Three years and three children later, she and her husband realize they are better suited as friends, and they part on good terms. She is barely 21 years old. “We were young, we were dumb,” Dee says. “We thought [marriage] was a good idea, it wasn’t, and we moved on.”
The divorce was quick and painless, but Dee’s initiation to military life had only just begun. She soon found herself back in her hometown of Liberty, Texas, this time with three little ones to care for. After spending a few years working with her father to restore cars while helping to take care of her cancer-stricken grandmother, Dee did a brief stint herself with the Navy Reserve, until a heart valve condition forced her out. But she left the service with good friends, and when one transferred to the Army, she drove 4 hours to visit him at Fort Hood one winter weekend.
“I was miserable. I was working, I was being supermom, and I wasn’t letting anybody close to me.” But at Fort Hood, Dee met Joe, a recent recruit with the 1st Cavalry Division, and lightning struck. This is where her story veers into the unconventional. “We just kind of hit it off,” she says. “It was right, from the minute we started talking, and we pretty much became inseparable after that.” Within two months, Dee moved her family to Fort Hood, and by summer she and Joe were married.
“My mom… asked me, ‘Is this really what you want, or do you feel you have to?’ and I told her, ‘For the first time, I don’t feel like I have to do something. I’m doing it because I really want to.’”
The complications that often pop the bubble of a brand-new relationship simply rolled off Dee and Joe’s storybook romance. The 9-year age gap between them seemed irrelevant. Her children, the oldest of whom was 11 at the time, took to their stepfather quickly. Joe had just returned from his first deployment to Iraq, where he took part in the Battle of Baqubah, a massive campaign by coalition forces against al Qaeda operatives that has since been documented in numerous books and films. Many of his buddies did not make it back, and he experienced posttraumatic stress and anger issues, but he was working through them.
LESSONS IN HUMILITY AND HUMANITY
They had been married for less than a year when Joe was sent back to Iraq on his second deployment. Just a few weeks into it, Dee received a phone call from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A good friend of hers from high school had listed her as his emergency contact. Will had left the Navy in 2006 with pins in his knees, a minor traumatic brain injury, and a muscle graft in his left arm because it has been eaten away by infection. He had become addicted to drugs and was homeless, and he ended up at the VA after attempting suicide. The VA could not keep him, and Dee knew he had nowhere to go. All she could do was hope Joe would understand.
“I wasn’t able to get a hold of Joe, so I made that decision all on my own, and I told the kids, ‘Today we’re teaching two lessons. Will’s going to learn humility and you’re going to learn humanity.’” And they drove 3.5 hours to pick him up.
When Dee and Joe finally connected, three weeks later, she had no idea how to tell him that while he was under attack in Iraq, another man had moved in under their roof. But if she had any doubts about her husband, he quashed them with his response. “My husband is the most amazing man I could ever imagine because he just looked at me, and said, ‘Well, don’t leave a brother behind.’”
Dee was certain that Will’s stay would be short-term and assumed he would be gone by the time Joe returned for R & R. In fact, he lived with them for eight years, and it took the entire family to help Will find his way back to the person he had been back in high school. Once he had a home, his condition stabilized, and he began to feel better about himself. He took his medications reliably, went to the doctor regularly, and generally did what was needed to remain healthy. Will became part of their family, and his being there was as beneficial for Joe, who was grappling with his own injuries, as it was for Will. “It was very cathartic for all of us,” Dee says. “We just didn’t know it in the beginning.”
But no story ends quite so neatly. As Will was getting healthy, Joe had begun to struggle. While he was lucky enough never to have been attacked directly, four deployments left him with back injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and polyps on his lungs from burn pits. Every time he asked for help, he was called weak and a crybaby by his superiors, leaving him second-guessing himself. He finally decided to leave the Army in early 2016, angry and resentful that he was unable to get the help he knew he needed.
“One day [my coach] just sat down with me and [told me], ‘You do need to set boundaries, regardless. Everyone in this house is old enough to take care of themselves, and you need to take care of you. It’s okay to take care of you.’”
COMING AROUND TO SELF-CARE
Dee considered the changes taking place in her family and realized she had reached the end of her own rope. In taking care of others, she had always been organized and lived according to lists, but her life seemed to be spiraling away from her. “I’m looking at Joe getting ready to get out of the Army, my oldest had graduated early so he’s trying to decide college or a gap year. It was just a big transition time and I was like, ‘I can’t change anymore. I have changed all I can change.’” That was when Dee found Operation Family Caregiver (OFC), a program that provides one-on-one coaching for friends and family members caring for service members and veterans. Founded by the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, coaches work with caregivers to help them find new strength and feel better about moving forward and making decisions that will improve their lives.
“My coach… Bill was very nice. He let me just vent a lot, he would interject where he saw fit, of course, and he would give me ideas to help cope. And then one day he just sat down with me and [told me], ‘You do need to set boundaries, regardless. Everyone in this house is old enough to take care of themselves, and you need to take care of you. It’s okay to take care of you.’”
This was a revelation. Dee already had solid coping skills and, as a Caregiver Fellow with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, she had a broad network of other military caregivers to connect with, but it had been many years since she prioritized herself. Working with her OFC coach, she learned how to break down her problems, prioritize her goals, find essential “me time,” and work through some of the day-to-day stress she felt. The program worked so well for her that today, Dee has herself become an OFC coach, working with military families who face some of the same challenges. Three of her four children are now grown, Will lives independently, and Joe has separated from the Army and has a job in the private sector, where he can continue to work on tanks. Like so many families, they are still pursuing their happily ever after.