The one piece of advice I would offer to military and veteran caregivers is to set clear boundaries and that it is ok to say no. There is an unspoken pressure to be all things to all people at the sacrifice of your own emotional, physical, and spiritual health. I encourage caregivers to know their limits and to give themselves permission for regular self-care.
What does being a military or veteran caregiver mean to you?
For me, being a caregiver means providing a bridge of communication and navigation between my veteran, our children, extended family, and the civilian community. I am the last line of defense my veteran has when trying to communicate with family members and medical personnel or when doing something as simple as filling out questionnaires or legal documents. My hand is the first thing my veteran reaches for during a nightmare or when triggered in public. Being a military caregiver means self-sacrifice, advocacy, patience, love, mercy, and compassion.
At what moment did you realize you were a military caregiver?
The moment I realized I was a military caregiver was life-changing and heart-wrenching. My veteran had reached a critical moment when life held no peace or joy for him. The day I was forced to take action to ensure his emotional and physical safety, my mind shifted from being only a wife to the acceptance of being a caregiver of a combat-wounded veteran. I am still a wife but now realize the tremendous responsibility of caring for one of America’s heroes.
What are you most excited to do as a Dole Caregiver Fellow?
As a Dole Caregiver Fellow, I am most excited about the opportunity to develop an initiative that provides education, resources, and awareness of domestic and intimate partner violence within the military and veteran caregiver community. I want to advocate for an increased understanding and proactive approach to what long-term exposure to verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual violence caused by veterans’ seen and unseen injuries does to the caregiver and children. I am excited to be the voice of caregivers who have no hope or voice of their own.
Justina met her Army veteran husband Curtis in 1986 while attending a Christian boarding school. They were always close friends but never dated. Curtis joined the Army after graduation, married, and had three children while Justina became a nurse, married, and had three children of her own. The decades passed and although sadly each of their marriages had ended, they reconnected at a time when Curtis needed skilled nursing and a caregiver he could trust. Justina was able to jump in and help her old friend, never anticipating that they would eventually marry.
Curtis’s need for care stemmed from an incident when a sniper round hit him in the chest on January 1, 2006, during his second tour in Iraq. He came home to Walter Reed on life support and spent the next several months recovering and learning to walk again. In addition to his visible injuries, Curtis suffers from traumatic brain disease (TBD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder (MDD), and anxiety. He also has many physical challenges resulting from multiple gunshot wounds and degeneration of his spine, knees, and ankles due to his years of military service. At one point, Justina had to admit Curtis to a psychiatric ward because of suicidal ideations.
One of Justina’s most significant challenges as a caregiver is being the bridge for communication between Curtis, his doctors, their adult children, and civilian society at large. Diffusing difficult situations which create triggers for him has forced Justina to learn and implement healthier coping skills in her marriage and daily life.
Justina has not allowed her new normal as a military caregiver to stop her from growing as an individual or advocating for those who cannot speak for themselves. She is a songwriter and recording artist with two albums. Justina is set to complete her Master of Arts in human services counseling-military resilience from Liberty University in the summer of 2023 and volunteers as a Peer Support Mentor through the Department of Veteran Affairs. Justina’s goal as a Dole Caregiver Fellow is to bring greater awareness, education, and support to victims and survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence within the caregiver and veteran community.