Caregiver Profile: Kristin
Holding onto a Glimpse of What Could Be
A little over seven years ago, on a cold February evening, a 26-year-old dialysis technician in Niagara Falls, New York, had a blind date with an infantryman in the U.S. Army. Kristin had no expectations for the evening, but she agreed to meet Matthew for dinner. Matt had been serving in Iraq for six months when he came home to Western New York on his mid-tour leave. Although he was just looking for company and was headed back overseas in 8 days, by the end of the evening, both Matt and Kristin knew they had begun something that was going to last much longer than just that night.
The rest of Matt’s leave seemed to fly by, and he and Kristin were inseparable. Each had felt an instant connection, and it didn’t matter that he was only home for a short time. Matt’s family and friends met her at his coming home party only two days after the two of them had met. Within a week, he was on his way back to Iraq, but there was no question they would stay together. “When he left, it was, you know that corny line, ‘Will you wait for me?’” Kristin remembers. “I know it sounds stupid when I say it out loud but it really was like a movie.”
A CHANGED MAN
Now, Kristin looks back at that night as the night she met the man she thought would be her husband. She did marry Matt, just a month after he returned from his tour in Iraq, nine months after they had met. But during that time, he suffered an injury that would have a huge impact on his – and her – life. “When I met him, he was the funniest, happiest person in the world,” Kristin reveals. “All the incidents that changed him happened in the spring when he went back. So I saw him before… and then I saw him go away… I got to see a glimpse of him and then he disappeared.” After they were married, Kristin began to see what had happened to the man she had met only a few months before. “When he came home,” she says, “he never truly came home.”
In 2010, Matt was medically retired after the Department of Veterans Affairs determined him to be 50 percent disabled – now upgraded to 100 percent – from a back injury he incurred in Iraq, along with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). He can’t work, Kristin says, and there are times she goes to work in the morning and comes home in the afternoon to find Matt has not moved at all for the entire day. He has a quick temper and is often stuck in what Kristin calls his “funk.” “In the last seven years it has gotten way worse… because he’s not dealing with it,” she explains. “So it’s just all eating at him, so he’s never going to get better, I don’t feel like, because he’ll never be honest with anybody that could maybe help him.” Matt spoke to her once about what had happened to him in Iraq, and, sobbing uncontrollably, he made her promise never to tell it to anyone.
“When he came home, he never really came home.”
AN UNEXPECTED CAREGIVER
While his back injury is debilitating, the PTSD has caused a crippling anxiety that makes every day a challenge, placing Kristin in the unexpected role of caregiver. At the same time, she works full time, manages her household and two young boys, and still finds the time to volunteer in her community. But sometimes it feels almost as though Kristin is living two lives: the public life she lives outside her home with little acknowledgement of her husband’s injury or its repercussions on her family, and her home life, which she maintains quietly and in private. She has good relationships with her mother and girlfriends, but she keeps this entire side of her life hidden from them. They have no experience with the military, so she doesn’t think they can relate and she doesn’t want them to judge Matt. Still, Kristin knows that she needs an outlet, and she has found one in Operation Family Caregiver (OFC).
OFC is a one-on-one training program that helps the families of returning service members and veterans navigate the new 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 caregivers, who often find themselves in a position they are unprepared for and unequipped to handle. These can be parents, children, husbands, or wives – people just like Kristin. Last year at an event for the families of wounded warriors, Kristin met Tina Caviness, a caregiver coach with OFC. When they met, Tina told Kristin all about OFC, and the two hit it off immediately. A week later Kristin signed up for the program.
THE BENEFITS OF OPERATION FAMILY CAREGIVER
OFC has opened doors Kristin just could not see in front of her. Besides meeting Tina, who she calls “my rock,” Kristin has met other caregivers and shared her story in public settings with people who naturally understand what she is up against. She has found that talking about the challenges her family faces has helped her in immeasurable ways. She has become a peer mentor with Hearts of Valor, a network of caregivers that is hosted by another military family organization, Operation Homefront. As a peer mentor, she has the chance to meet and talk with other military caregivers who are hiding in plain sight and facing some of the same issues, but different ones as well. “It’s all finally falling into place, where it’s been so many years where I didn’t have that [support],” Kristin says, with hope in her voice. “Even if my husband stays at this level, if it doesn’t get any worse than this, I think I could manage. I’m doing the best I can and it hasn’t broken me.”