February 7, 2014

Unsung heroes, military caregivers

Unsung heroes, military caregivers
Thompson Family photo

By Lily Casura

With Veterans Day, our thoughts turn typically to “him who has borne the battle,” in the immortal words ofAbraham Lincoln, which are now enshrined above the entrance to the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Yes, veterans are usually “him,” but increasingly also a “her,” thanks to more women serving today, estimated at 15 percent of the Armed Forces. But something we’re even less likely to “see” when we focus on the veteran in the picture is the unsung hero standing right behind him or her – the military caregiver, often a spouse or partner, sometimes a parent.

The Rand Corp., acknowledging the unavoidable imprecision in estimating the number of military caregivers, in a 2013 report estimated that somewhere between 250,000 and possibly as many as 1 million Americans are serving or have served as caregivers to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Not all injuries are immediately apparent, and care needs can fluctuate over time. That’s why the figure could be even higher, according to Rand. When you add in veterans from other wars, such as Vietnam, those figures keep climbing.

And some of the severely injured veterans, such as Houston native Anthony Thompson, a former Navy medic who served as a corpsman in Iraq, are so disabled by their injuries that they require around-the-clock care.Ivonne Estrada Thompson, a high school Spanish teacher and also a Houston native, was newly married to Anthony in 2007 when he left on his second deployment. She was also pregnant with their first child.

A few months later, a bomb blew up the bridge Anthony was standing on with a group of Marines. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed, unconscious and unable to communicate. A few months later, their son A.J. was born. But Anthony spent almost the next four years in the hospital.

Today, he’s at home in northeast Houston with his family. Ivonne acknowledges that Anthony “depends on me literally for everything.” As she described to me, Anthony is minimally conscious. He is not in a vegetative state. He is sometimes awake, sometimes asleep, but with no consistent form of communication. They’ve tried thumbs up for yes, thumbs down for no. The concept didn’t work, nor did alternating eye blinks for “yes” and “no.” Too complicated for Anthony in his condition.

Ivonne is 36, Anthony is 32. Their son, A.J., is 6, and just starting kindergarten. He has never been able to have a conversation with his father, nor is it likely he will. This is what their lives look like, but you don’t hear self-pity. From Ivonne, you hear an uncommon resilience and a toughness borne of adversity – the ongoing battle at home.

Ivonne says she’s become adept at reading Anthony’s body language – knowing when he’s uncomfortable or in pain. Or happy. “When that’s all you’ve got,” she says, “you learn to read those cues.” Before Anthony deployed, Ivonne was looking forward to years of a typical marriage, sharing responsibilities “in a 50/50 split,” continuing to teach, having her family ideal of three children. Now she knows the boundaries of her life because they’re defined by her role as a full-time caregiver to Anthony.

The responsibility is crushing; despite it, she tries to take care of herself and her son. She is a fellow of the Washington, D.C.-based Elizabeth Dole Foundation, and praises its efforts to improve the lot of military family caregivers. “It takes a caregiver spouse like Dole,” she says, “to put the focus on caregivers front and center.”

She may have the hardest-luck tale in the group of fellows – the foundation chooses 20 annually to help shape the organization’s initiatives – but there are many suffering with her. And what they need most of all, according to Ivonne but also to the other caregiver partners with whom I spoke, is understanding and a break. “Very rarely do I get asked how I am doing,” she says. “And when I do, it can open a floodgate of emotion.”

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