The Department of Defense estimates nearly one in five Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans has a brain injury along with other medical problems like PTSD and chronic pain.
Some of those veterans must rely on their wives or mothers to be their caregivers. But a nationwide study finds more than half of these 1.1 million caregivers are balancing their new roles without any support.
A Chester woman started a non-profit to help them. Dr. Kara Gagnon was an Optometrist for almost two decades in the federal VA healthcare system. She treated veterans from all eras, but said the vision problems found in the veterans who served in the last 13 years were often caused by the same thing: a traumatic brain injury.
During all of those patient exams, Gagnon noted another similarity: the caregiver in the corner of the room.
"They were typically a woman, between the ages of 18 and 30. They looked absolutely physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually depleted," said Gagnon. "They gave me the most accurate history, even though they were exhausted. They got their man to that exam. They really were caring for this person that had multiple medical, psychological issues. And then they have their child in their lap; they're caring for them. Who they weren't caring for were themselves."
In 2014, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and the Rand Corporation released a first-of-its-kind study that focused on both military and civilian caregivers. They found many post 9/11 military caregivers had poor physical health and faced a higher risk of depression.
The study also found that of the more than 100 programs that offer services to caregivers, most really targeted services towards the veteran, not the person who was caring for them. And many of the programs were geared towards caregivers of older veterans.
That left young women like Emery Popoloski without the support she needed. Her husband, Charles, served two tours in Iraq but a traumatic brain injury cut short his military career.
"My husband is 30. I'm 28. This for us is going to be a 50, 60-year problem," Popoloski said.
Children also struggle to adjust when a parent comes back from military service deeply changed.
Gagnon brought up the issue with the VA, but she didn't get the response she was looking for. "What I was told was: that's out of our scope," she said. "Our money, our resources are for our veterans. Embracing the whole family is out of our scope. So I felt it needed to be my scope. I resigned after 18 years; I liquidated my 401K and started the non-profit."
Johnson's husband, Sean, suffered a traumatic brain injury during a tour in Iraq. He's now legally blind. She had to leave her full-time teaching job to take care of him and their three children.
"As a caregiver, I find so often that I can manage my husband's issues," Johnson said. "I can manage his pain; I can manage his fatigue, or his mental health issues, and I can manage his appointments. I can help reduce stress, but I struggle greatly to manage my own."
The federal VA does offers a support program for post 9/11 military caregivers. They receive a monthly stipend, and in some cases, have access to medical care.
Johnson has had a good experience with this program. "I'm also gaining mental health services through the VA with a VA psychologist to discuss the issues that I'm having adjusting to this new life," she said.
But Johnson knows other caregivers whose experience hasn't been positive. The quality of VA services varies depending on where a veteran lives, and the backlog in the VA system nationwide doesn't help. Johnson said this is where non-profits like Braveminds can step in to fill the gap.
One way Gagnon plans on doing that is by hosting retreats for veterans, caregivers, and their children. She's working to find sponsors and a location for a small retreat later this year. Last month, she toured Mercy By The Sea in Madison, a spirituality center set on Long Island Sound.
Gagnon explained some program ideas. "For instance, I have a gentleman coming in who does acupuncture and martial arts to engage the veteran and the children while the caregiver is getting a trauma first aid course," she said.
Gagnon's focus will be to give caregivers what they say is lacking in other programs: crisis management, stress resilience training, and respite care. Military families often feel isolated, so when the retreat is over, Gagnon said they'll be encouraged to use social media to stay connected, giving them an online network to lean on despite being separated by many miles.
Gagnon's eventual goal for Braveminds is to host retreats nationwide, and to extend the non-profit's reach to help civilian caregivers, too.