Introducing 11 strong, resilient, and passionate military caregivers
Every year, we carefully select military and veteran caregivers representing all corners of the country to participate in a Fellowship program with the Foundation.
Our Dole Caregiver Fellows are the heart and soul of the Foundation, and with this year’s class, we are adding to the diversity of voices representing America’s hidden heroes. They’re military caregivers from different backgrounds who are united by the strength, resilience, and passion they demonstrate in caring for their wounded warriors and advocating on behalf of caregivers nationwide.
It’s our pleasure to introduce you to the 2021 class of Dole Caregiver Fellows:
Caregiving has been a big part of Ilihia Gionson’s family. Today, he serves as a caregiver for his father, Anthony, a Vietnam veteran. Before Anthony was a care recipient, he was caring for his wife and his son, Ilihia’s mom and brother.
Ilihia works tirelessly to help his father, who has done so much for others. As his caregiver, Ilihia takes on managing appointments and medications, household chores, but perhaps most importantly, being an ear for his father when he needs to talk.
Angelena Taylor was a graduate student working to become a behavioral monitoring therapist when her father, a Vietnam veteran, had a stroke that changed everything. After a short recovery in a nursing care facility, her life dramatically changed when she stepped up to become her father’s full-time caregiver at home.
For a while, things were hard. Professors didn’t understand the flexibility she needed, and the challenges triggered periods of depression. Now that they’ve found balance and a routine, Angelena is empowering others by sharing her story as Ms. Midwest Captivating 2021.
The day that her husband’s doctor told her that he would need caregiver assistance for future procedures, Candace Laguna realized that she had been his caregiver all along. Not only does she care for her veteran and husband, retired SSGT Frank M. Laguna, she also cares for her son Anthony, who has ROHHAD Syndrome and special needs.
In addition to being a caregiver, Candace is also a homeschool teacher and is currently studying to pursue a career in medicine. She’s a tireless advocate for adaptive sports and treatment plans that help take patients and families away from the hospital and into the great outdoors.
2021 Dole Fellow April Mulvey hasn’t always known that she was a caregiver. One day, her husband Billy, a Marine Corps veteran, sustained a head injury that compounded previous wounds from deployments. Their world turned upside down. His injury made Billy unemployed and unemployable. They lost everything.
On the other side of a lot of struggle, April and Billy are stronger now than ever. Today, she helps other veterans and caregivers facing the challenges she once faced.
Dole Fellow Georgette Wenton’s caregiving journey began slowly, early in her relationship with her husband, Jason. An Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield veteran, he was facing issues with post–traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other service-connected wounds. In recent years, Georgette has had to step into the role of caregiver full-time. After Jason’s service-connected injuries required a bilateral amputation, she began managing appointments, medications, monitoring wounds and putting on his prosthetics.
Her transition into a full-time caregiver has resulted in Georgette struggling to maintain her own identity and self-care. Today, she advocates for self-care, especially for caregivers.
Chris Hahn became a caregiver when her daughter, Angie fell and hit her head while working in the Army at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. After her initial injuries, Angie faced setbacks after she underwent surgery, which resulted in complications that left her in a coma for a year and a half. Through it all, Chris has been her daughter’s tireless advocate. From taking her to appointments and making sure she is heard, to helping Angie maintain a relationship with her daughter, Chris is there through it all.
When Dole Fellow Kristin Christensen’s husband Michael was going through the medical retirement process, his VA advocate pulled her aside and told her that she should sign up for the VA Caregiver Program. The suggestion helped Kristin realize that her role as a caregiver would go far beyond helping Michael retire. Since then, she has taken on providing constant emotional and physical support to Michael, administering his medication, scheduling appointments, and managing his mood. Kristin also manages the childcare for their kids, while helping them understand their dad’s needs and situation.
Kristin’s caregiving journey has inspired her to help other veterans transitioning from active duty. Today, she is a student at the University of Washington, studying Integrated Social Science in preparation for law school.
Jose Alvarez, a 2021 Dole Fellow from California, is a caregiver for four veterans. However, that’s not where his journey in caregiving began. As a teenager, he began volunteering at a nursing home. Later, he became a caregiver for his wife and son through a menagerie of medical procedures.
In 2019, he felt the need to become a full-time caregiver. He quit his day job in international trade and business and dove into a new career. Although his day-to-day work changes, the feeling that he’s not only supporting the veteran but also supporting their spouses who are their full-time caregivers remains the same.
2021 Dole Fellow Jenny Briest is an advocate for veterans. She has lobbied with the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) for the Caregiver Act, appeared as a spokesperson for a WWP commercial, and met with senior leaders at the VA to provide input on the VA Fiduciary system.
Her caregiving journey began when her husband Corey was injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) blast in Iraq. That day changed their lives forever. Jenny stepped into the role of caregiver and began to support Corey in every aspect of the day including meal prep and managing medications.
“Being a military caregiver means making sure that no other veteran goes through this journey alone or without an advocate.”
Dole Fellow Debra Barker serves as a caregiver for her husband, Shawn. They’re high school sweethearts and she has been by his side throughout his entire military career. Today, Debra provides emotional support, manages appointments and medications, and helps Shawn get around. She shows up for him at home, but also is an advocate for him in the medical setting, making sure all of his service-related injuries are known by his medical team.
Debra is there for Shawn, her team at work, as well as her niece and nephew, who she is raising after her sister passed away.
Linda Mais wants to help caregivers and their veterans find the resources and assistance they need to make their lives easier and more fulfilled. She’s seen the difference access to resources has made for her father Joe, a Vietnam veteran. As his caregiver, she advocates on his behalf for continued care, treatment, and makes sure his doctors knew exactly how he’s feeling both mentally and physically.
After connecting her childhood memories of his anger and panic to her father’s PTSD, Linda also hopes to give a voice to veterans of her father’s generation, knowing they’re typically reticent about discussing their physical or mental health issues.
Their unique journeys highlight the variety of circumstances military and veteran caregivers find themselves in while caring for a loved one. They balance caregiving and their careers, care for aging parents, even save their family from the brink of homelessness. By understanding their stories, we’re able to fill the gaps in services and support for military caregivers and their families.
Our 2021 class joins the Foundation’s 235 past and present Fellows who represent all 50 states, DC, and Puerto Rico. Fellows serve as leaders, community organizers, and advocates for military caregivers in their states and nationwide. They’re trained by the Foundation and empowered to share their stories and advise leaders across the country on the most pressing issues concerning military caregivers. It’s with their guidance, we drive positive change on behalf of these hidden heroes.
We have high hopes for our 2021 Dole Fellows and have no doubt that this group will move mountains on behalf of hidden heroes nationwide. We look forward to sharing their stories and successes with you along the way.
Share your encouraging words and well wishes with our 2021 Fellows – submit a message of support today!