Caring for Invisible Wounds
Four Military Caregivers Championing Brain Injury Awareness
“Sometimes the deepest, longest lasting wounds of war are invisible.” – Senator Elizabeth Dole
March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. According to the Brain Injury Association of America, there are more than 5.3 million children and adults in the United States living with a permanent brain injury-related disability. More than 350,000 of these Americans are service members who have sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI), affecting their cognitive and motor functions, sensations, and emotions.
What is a TBI? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as “a disruption in the normal function of the brain that can be caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head, or penetrating head injury.”
According to the VA, “conditions stemming from TBI can range from headaches, irritability, and sleep disorders to memory problems, slower thinking, and depression. These conditions often lead to long-term mental and physical health problems that can impair [service members and] veterans’ employment, family relationships, and reintegration into home communities.”
The Elizabeth Dole Foundation recognizes and supports the caregivers and family members who play a significant role in helping their service members and veterans manage the everlasting effects of TBI.
Meet four military caregivers who love someone with a TBI and are taking major strides to make this invisible injury more visible to the American public.
Veteran Caregiver from Texas
Roxana Delgado, PhD., inspires us and reminds us of our mission every day. She is an assistant professor, epidemiologist and researcher at University of Texas at San Antonio. In addition, she is the co-founder of TBI Warrior Foundation, an organization that strives to improve the quality of life of veterans, civilians, and children with brain injury and their caregivers.
Roxana became a hidden hero in 2009 after her husband Victor’s vehicle was hit by an explosive formed projectile while he was serving in the Army. He sustained a moderate TBI along with other injuries. During his rehabilitation, Roxana and Victor identified gaps in the health care system surrounding the diagnosis and treatment of TBIs. With her research background in health sciences, they worked to shape new military health care policies. This work evolved to become what is now TBI Warrior, as well as components of our Foundation’s Campaign for Inclusive Care, where Roxana serves as a research advisor.
We are endlessly grateful for the work Roxana has done on behalf of our organization, for TBI Warrior as co-founder, and for so many caregivers and their veterans who are living with traumatic brain injuries across the country. You can learn more and support her work at: https://www.tbiwarriorfoundation.org/
Veteran Caregiver from Florida
Before he became a caregiver for his daughter Laura, Joe Narvaez was contracted as a travel director for Fortune 500 companies. When Laura decided to join the Air Force in 2001, it took some time for Joe to understand her decision – but once he did, he became her biggest champion.
Laura served in Operational Intelligence with the Special Operations Command and suffered multiple types of injuries as a result of her service. During deployment in 2006, an improvised explosive device caused her to suffer a traumatic brain injury (TBI), which led to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Unfortunately, this was not the only difficulty that Laura would face. A few months later while stationed in South Korea, she was attacked by a fellow service member and suffered sexual trauma. After she medically retired in 2008, Joe stepped in as caregiver, although he was not recognized as such at the time of her discharge.
Instead, Laura’s high school sweetheart and husband who also served in Special Operations in the Air Force became her caregiver. Joe was not aware that Laura’s husband, who was supposed to be her caregiver, was struggling and in need of care himself. In 2016, Laura’s husband had a PTSD episode that ended his life.
Joe immediately stepped in to help, leaving his full-time job to devote all of his time to being her caregiver. Today, Joe lives near Laura and continues to help around the house and is there for medical appointments with her. Joe not only goes out of his way to care for his daughter, but his grandson, and his 90-year-old mother.
Joe’s love and dedication to Laura and his family has forever left an impression on us. Not only does he give his all to his family, but he also helps others navigate their caregiver journey.
Veteran Caregiver from Hawaii
Emily Emmons is a caregiver for her husband, John. Before he was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and severe post-traumatic stress disorder in 2014, he suffered from a menagerie of symptoms on a weekly basis. For eight years, he struggled with severe migraines, anxiety, night sweats, and other symptoms before finally getting an accurate diagnosis.
Gardening helped ease the pressure of his PTSD and TBI. After their daughters got involved and it became a family activity, it became clear that it wasn’t just gardening. It was a means to reconnect and to heal every day while keeping their fruits and veggies healthy.
Healing through gardening inspired Emily and John to provide this therapeutic opportunity to other veterans coping with PTSD and other conditions and hardships. Enter: Ho’ola Farms, a nonprofit that serves military veterans, caregivers, first-responders, and their families by providing opportunities to heal, connect, learn, grow, and thrive.
With help from GoFarm Hawaii, they’ve launched their Growing Veterans program, which consists of classroom-style lectures (in-person and via internet), hands-on practical work days at the training farm, and field trips to operational farms.
On being a caregiver Fellow, Emily says: “It has made a significant impact on my life. It has empowered and encouraged me to live my life with purpose everyday. Once you are a Fellow, youʻre always family. And that couldnʻt be more true… in Hawai`i we call it `Ohana.”
Emily serves as Executive Director and is an advocate for veterans and their families living in rural areas. We’re constantly inspired by her innovation and dedication to helping others find healing. You can learn more about Ho’ola Farms here: https://www.hoolafarms.org/
Veteran Caregiver from Tennessee
Tammy Dyson’s journey as a caregiver began after her husband Jim fell from a vehicle and suffered a shoulder and back injury, a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and later post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After he returned home, she began helping him get through every day. She started to manage his medication, coordinate his healthcare, and re-directs him when a stressful situation may trigger an outburst.
As a resident of Montana, Tammy wanted her government leaders to understand how difficult it could be for a veteran to navigate the VA system. She always wanted them to understand how challenging it could be for a veteran who suffers from a brain injury and has no caregiver. This led her to meet with U.S. Senator Jon Tester, from Montana, who agreed to call the VA to schedule a basic appointment. The difficulties he experienced convinced Senator Tester that it should not be this challenging for veterans to receive care.
These days, she continues to show up for caregivers by hosting “A Caregiver Workshop”. Every month, she and others present on new topics, like finances, wellness, communication, and more!
Tammy hopes to help people understand the impact of secondhand trauma experienced by caregivers. PTSD generally comes along with a TBI and that can affect the caregiver as well, and it’s not talked about as much. She wants to change that.
While the month of March is dedicated to the cause, our hidden heroes advocate on behalf of loved ones with TBIs and brain injuries every day . If you care for someone with an invisible wound, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation wants to make sure you don’t feel invisible either.
If you’re a spouse, child, parent, or friend who helps care for a service member or veteran at home, we invite you to sign up for our Hidden Heroes Caregiver Community (HHCC). Connection, validation, understanding, support, and resource sharing – that’s what HHCC is all about. Become part of our community and find your tribe by visiting: hiddenheroes.org/register.