Her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Hugh McKinney, was injured in a bomb explosion in 2005 while serving in Iraq with the Army National Guard. The blast severely injured his brain.
Two weeks after he returned home, Marissa, one of the couple’s five children, sustained severe injuries in a car accident. McKinney cared for her for four months. Marissa since has recovered.
Also about that same time, McKinney’s mother, Lettie England, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Over the next three years, McKinney did her best to care for them all — largely on her own. (England died in 2011.)
“I had nobody to turn to,” she said. “I had to figure it out for myself. It was very stressful.”
Over the years, McKinney, 45, developed routines to care for her husband and raise her children. Now she’s something of an expert. In February, she decided to use her expertise to help others and applied to become an Elizabeth Dole Foundation fellow.
“I heard about the program from volunteering with other caregiver groups,” she said. “I figured I could take it on.”
Her story inspired representatives from the foundation, which selected her in March as the Elizabeth Dole Fellow for Idaho.
The Washington, D.C.-based foundation supports veteran and military caregivers by leveraging grant funds for nonprofit organizations and lobbying for policies that help caregivers. The foundation designates one caregiver per state, and each fellow represents hundreds of people in similar situations. The year-long position is unpaid, but travel expenses are covered.
As a fellow, McKinney attends foundation meetings and events, advocates for caregiver resources at the state and federal levels, advises the foundation on how to connect with caregivers in Idaho and helps select recipients for the foundation’s grant program.
“Everybody has a different story,” she said. “I want be a voice for people who’s stories are similar to mine.”
The foundation sent McKinney to the nation’s capital April 7 for a week. She shared her story with Idaho Republican U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, trying to find more resources for caregivers like her.
“I had never been to the Capitol before,” McKinney said. “It was an amazing experience. I met a lot of people with similar stories all fighting for the same cause.”
Her husband, Hugh, watched her tell her story on C-SPAN.
A Good Fit
“She’s the right person for the job,” Hugh McKinney said. “She works really hard, she’s very personable and … she understands the situations of injured veterans.”
Dole Foundation Executive Director Carol Harlow agreed.
After reviewing her application, Harlow said, she knew McKinney was the right person to represent the state’s veteran and military caregivers.
“Her story really caught our eye during the application process,” Harlow said. “(Her) personal experience will help us understand what we need to do to make things easier for caregivers … A lot of caregivers share stories similar to hers. We are confident she will represent them well.”
‘This Can’tBe Too Good’
Hugh McKinney, 52, was serving his second tour in Iraq in October 2005, part of an Idaho Army National Guard unit, Bravo Company 2-116. He was within 50 feet of a 100-pound roadside bomb when it exploded.
“I felt part of my brain shift,” he said. “I thought, ‘This can’t be too good.’”
The explosion left him with traumatic brain injury, degenerative disc disease, vision problems and other complications, ending his 23-year military career.
“He left one person and came back another,” said McKinney’s daughter, Rosalie Mattice. She was 14 then and since has married.
McKinney said she didn’t understand the extent of her husband’s injuries until he had a stroke in January 2007 was related to his brain injury.
“Nobody could figure out what was wrong with him,” she said. “He continued to drill (with the Guard) in Rexburg before the stroke. Eventually, doctors realized that his brain injury was causing his health problems.”
After retiring from the military, he returned to his civilian job at the Driggs Post Office, but his declining health forced him into an early retirement.
“I cook for him, schedule all of his medical appointments, drive him around and help him with speech and cognition therapy and other small things like buttoning his buttons,” McKinney said.
While in Washington, she discussed the lack of accessible veteran health care options in eastern Idaho with the state’s congressional delegation.
A nurse from the Idaho Falls Veterans Administration Telehealth Outreach Clinic visits the couple once a week to check on Hugh’s health.
“We don’t have as many disabled veterans here compared to states with big military bases, which means resources are really limited,” McKinney said. The Idaho Falls Veterans Administration Telehealth Outreach Clinic “is great, but it would be nice if we didn’t have to wait two months to book an appointment.”
That clinic is a branch of the VA’s Salt Lake Health Care System and serves 1,050 veterans, said spokeswoman Jill Atwood.
Because the clinic can’t meet his needs, Hugh travels to Salt Lake City every two to three months for brain treatments. The couple sometimes spends several days there while he undergoes his treatment.
He said he deeply appreciates his wife’s help. “She keeps me motivated and healthy. I don’t know what I would do without her.”
Mattice admires her mother’s efforts.
“Ever since my Dad had his stroke, she’s been by his side,” Mattice said. “Even at 14 years old, I could tell it was really hard for her at first, but she’s been a trooper about it.”
Making Ends Meet
Jeanette McKinney can’t work full-time so the family relies on Hugh McKinney’s Department of Veterans Affairs benefits and disability payments, which she said is less than $2,000 a month, barely enough to cover daily expenses after their mortgage payments.
“It pays for food and power, that’s pretty much it,” she said.
They also earn money in the summer selling shaved ice and ice cream at Mac’s Snow Shack at Ammon and Sunnyside roads.
“We bought it seven years ago to supplement our income,” McKinney said. “The whole family helps out. The kids run it in the summertime and Hugh talks to customers … Cassandra and Rosalie ran it by themselves when Hugh was in the hospital.”
Their children — Jack, 14; Marissa, 17; Rick, 19; Rosalie, 22; and Cassandra, 24 — have helped with their dad’s care.
“They have grown up differently from other children we know,” their mother said. “They help take care of Hugh when I’m gone. When I was in Washington, D.C., my teenagers cooked and helped keep the house together … It’s amazing how big a role children play in caregiving.”
Study Outlines Caregivers’ Problems
A recent RAND Corp. study, “Hidden Heroes: America’s Military Caregivers,” estimated that the U.S. has 5.5 million military caregivers, with 1.1 million of them caring for veterans injured since Sept. 11, 2001, and 17 percent spending more than 40 hours a week caring for a veteran.
“The war may have ended in Iraq,” McKinney said, “but the war is still going on at home.”
The study found that most resources are focused on the injured veteran rather than the husbands, wives and other family members who often care for them. The study recommended organizations that provide resources for veterans take the families into account, referring to them as “hidden heroes.”
They “consistently experience worse health outcomes, greater strains in family relationships and more workplace problems than non-caregivers,” the study said.
“Currently, someone is only considered a caregiver to a veteran if they are their spouse,” McKinney said. “We asked lawmakers to pursue legislation that would allow anybody to be a caregiver…. Right now, if something were to happen to me, and my kids had to take care of my husband, they wouldn’t be entitled to the same benefits.”