Elizabeth Dole Foundation
Hidden Heroes
Caregiver Journey Map Campaign for Inclusive Care

Debra Barker

Being a military caregiver means making sure that no other veteran goes through this journey alone or without an advocate.

What is one piece of advice you would offer to other military and veteran caregivers?

Do not wait. I waited too long to ask for help and it only prolonged the process and delayed the healing.

At what moment did you realize you were a military caregiver?

I think of many moments. My most recent time was in the past few weeks when our daughter was hospitalized and recognizing that my husband no longer has the capacity to process or critically think. It is such a sad awakening when we see what they have lost and how are reminded of these losses every day.

How has your life changed since you became a caregiver? What sacrifices have you had to make?

Life changed drastically. I work full-time and was lucky to work with a quality-of-life organization that recognizes our service members and their families’ unique challenges. I constantly must adjust our schedules and help redirect when he has a difficult day. I had an opportunity to take a huge leap in my career while he was in the last few months of his military career, but chose to stay in the position I am in to help him with his battles. I would not have had it any other way. Our daughter helped us more than we can put into words. She saw the invisible wounds and chose to help and forge our path forward in this journey. 

My Story

Debra Barker and her husband Shawn were high school sweethearts and married in 1993 when he finished Navy basic training. During his 20 years of service, Shawn completed nine tours to the Middle East as an Electronics Technician, which led to several injuries including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sleep disorders, a leg injury that required a total knee replacement, and a shoulder injury that continues to cause mobility issues.

Most recently, Shawn was diagnosed with melanoma which has spread to other parts of his body. Though the cancerous spots were documented in Shawn’s health records before he left the Navy, the couple has faced issues confirming his diagnosis being recorded as service connected by the VA. Debra had her first caregiver “win” when she spoke with a JAG officer who volunteers with her local Young Lawyers Association who gave her guidance about documenting Shawn’s cancer as a result of his service.

As Shawn’s caregiver, Debra provides emotional support, manages his appointments and medications, and helps him get around the house on days when he has mobility limitations. One of the most critical lessons Debra has learned as a caregiver is time management while she continues to balance working full-time as an operations supervisor for financial counselors and raising her niece and nephew following her sister’s death. Debra and Shawn receive support from their adult daughter when she is not at her job as a public-school teacher working with children with special needs.

Debra is an avid runner, which she considers her self-care. She is also grateful to a friend who taught her about meditation and mindfulness, and she tries to practice every day. Debra hopes that she can help other caregivers find resources and advocate for their veterans.