Triumphs and Tragedies Only Military Families Will Understand
When military service members return from deployment wounded, the effects of their injuries ripple through their families mercilessly. One nonprofit organization, Hope for the Warriors, has set out to support not only those injured in battle, but the families they return to as well.
Learning the importance of hope
When Robin Kelleher saw her close friend struggling after the return of her injured Marine officer husband, she knew she had to help her to cope in some way. “At the time, I was dealing with my husband’s back-to-back deployments as well, but I wanted to get my friend out of the house, so I asked her if she wanted to go for a run.” Kelleher and her friend were both runners, and they soon came up with the idea to start a charity run as a way to bring the community together and support Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. The charity run turned into more of a success than either of them expected, and Kelleher knew there was more to be done to support families as they welcomed home injured service members. She was inspired to begin a non-profit organization that focused on supporting service members and their families, and Hope for the Warriors was born.
“The military was training our service members extremely well, but as a country, we’re not prepared for the wounded military,” Kelleher says. “There weren’t services available, and as I researched what gaps there were to fill, I realized there were a lot.” Kelleher says the early days of the organization were at a grass roots level, and she spent a lot of the time working at the dining room table while she was home caring for their small children and her husband was deployed.
Today, the organization has grown to serve more than 13,000 service members with offices across the nation and partners with other companies to provide specialized services. Hope for the Warriors has a simple, but profound mission: to restore families and hope. “Our goal for service members is that they come in with a need, which we meet, but then they become part of our team. We want them back in a serving role again, which is what they want most themselves,” she says. “We offer financial, emotional, educational, and spiritual support. We cover things that no one else will.” Its Warrior Wish program helps to restore families, sometimes in unusual ways. For example, “We had one soldier who lost an arm, but used to love wrestling with his children,” says Kelleher. So the group hired a trainer to teach him how to wrestle with his kids again.
The help for service members extends to family members as well. The organization has a scholarship program for caregivers and spouses to help them be competitive in the job market and earn the income their service member husband or wife lost.
Kelleher admits the work is hard and can take a personal toll. “There have been days I wake up and say to myself, ‘I can’t do this anymore,'” she says. “There has always been a sign from above saying, ‘Yes, you can.’ We’ve stayed humble—we focus on doing good work for good reasons—and I think that’s why we’ve been successful.”
Finding the “new normal”
In 2013, as Mark Daniels, a Marine K9 handler, was deployed in Afghanistan, his wife, Jesca Daniels, was staying at a Ronald McDonald House in North Carolina while her one-year old daughter was undergoing surgery to fix a hole in her heart she was born with. In the middle of the night, the manager of the Ronald McDonald house knocked on her door and told her there had been an explosion, but her husband was alive. “My heart stopped at ‘explosion.’ I didn’t hear anything after that,” she says.
As it turned out, Mark and five other Marines had been hit by a remote detonated bomb on the way back from a patrol. Their vehicle flipped and threw Mark to the back of the vehicle, where he went unconscious, resulting in traumatic brain injury (TBI). Mark was awarded a Purple Heart and offered medical retirement, which he declined because of his desire to continue serving his country. His recovery has been difficult for the entire family, and has put Jesca into the role of caregiver to him as well as their two daughters. “When Mark originally came home he had a lot of memory issues and really bad headaches. He was unable to walk unassisted and required a cane and physical therapy,” Jesca recalls.
Mark’s injuries have taken more than his physical ability. “He’s not the man I married. There are days I miss him and he’s sitting right next to me,” Jesca says. Another military wife offered her some difficult but valuable advice. “She told me, ‘This is your new normal, and he may never be who you married again,'” Jesca says. “It made me realize that you have to decide whether you love the new person enough to fight—and a lot of the time the fight is with myself. The good always outweighs the bad, though, and seeing him become this new person is worth it.”
Hope for the Warriors helped the Daniels have a wedding celebration, something Mark and Jesca, who originally married at a justice of the peace in 2009, never had. “Mark was the one who really wanted a wedding,” Jesca recalls. “He worried that if something ever happened to either one of us, we wouldn’t have memories of our first dance or a special day.” Hope for the Warriors helped coordinate and fund the couple’s dream wedding, which reunited them with both of their families and some of Mark’s fellow Marines.
Today, Jesca and Mark continue to strive to focus on the positive and celebrate the good in life. Jesca insists that Mark continues to celebrate what those in the military call an “Alive Day,” the day they were injured and survived. “It’s a day to celebrate how far they’ve come and to remember those that aren’t here with us anymore,” she says. “I believe that everything in life makes you stronger, even the stuff that completely breaks you.”
Receiving life-changing support
Childhood sweethearts Aaron and Brittany Zurn met when he was 13 and she was 11—they began dating three years later. Eventually, they married and had three children as Aaron joined the Marines, working up to become part of the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations, an elite position that requited a seven-month trial period with strenuous physical and mental testing.
Two weeks after the couple’s third child was born, Aaron was deployed to Afghanistan, where he communicated with Brittany daily. So when he went four days without calling or texting in 2014, she knew something was wrong. Then, when Aaron finally reached Brittany, his call left more questions than answers. “He told me he fell from a helicopter and hurt his shoulder and head,” she recalls. “He was heavily medicated and he couldn’t give me much more detail than that.” It turned out that not only did Aaron have a TBI from his fall, but his mental capacity was diminished to that of a 13-year-old and he was suffering from severe PTSD.
An added insult to injury was the financial burden the couple faced as a result of Aaron’s inability to continue serving in the special forces. Aaron’s paycheck was cut in half suddenly, while their expenses remained the same. “When Aaron was injured, Hope for the Warriors was the first assistance check I received,” Brittany recalls.
While it has been a long road for Aaron, Brittany’s life has been turned upside down as well. “I went from a stay-at-home mom taking my kids to the park to becoming a caregiver for my husband,” she says. She now spends three or four days a week taking Aaron to doctors appointments at the VA and hours on the phone with doctors and insurance companies. “I feel like his assistant now,” she says.
For Brittany, the hardest part of Aaron’s injury is the loss of their life-long relationship. “I’ve loved him over half my life,” she says. “Not having the relationship that we had before the injury is like a death, only when someone passes you can heal. With a brain injury, it’s a shadow of what was.”
In an effort to become the healthiest version of herself possible during this trying time, Brittany began going to therapy. “My therapist told me, ‘You’re surviving the loss of your husband, and now you have to get to know this new man.’ It put it in perspective for me,” she says. With the aid of a scholarship from of Hope for the Warriors, Brittany returned to college, earned her bachelor’s degree, and began working full time.
Brittany’s commitment to using her family’s tragedy to help others has proven helpful to her own healing. She offers words of wisdom for those who now stand in her shoes searching for hope. “You’ll go through a time of thinking you can do it all on your own—but take the help,” she says. “Join the support group. Keep doing things for yourself, still shower and get ready every day. Make sure your family fully understands and gets involved as well.”
In the future, Brittany hopes to continue advocating for veterans and invisible injuries like the one her husband suffered. “There’s never enough we can say to thank service members. Traumatic brain injury and PTSD need to have more recognition,” she says. “My hope is that in the future we can find a new normal with a new label that isn’t ‘wounded’ or ‘injured.'” Find out the 60 things every caregiver needs you to know.
Going through the healing process
After finishing high school in 2003, Catherine Bane was excited to join the U.S. Army as a chaplain assistant. Her grandfather, father, and six of her brothers served in the armed forces, and she was proud to add to the family’s legacy. Her excitement quickly diminished after a sexual assault. “Within the first year of my service, I realized my experience in the military was very different than what my family had experienced in their careers,” she says. “Being sexually assaulted shook me to my core and for many years, changed the way I saw myself.” Worst of all, she had convinced herself it was her fault, she says.
Then, the unthinkable happened: She was sexually assaulted a second time. “I went completely numb inside,” Bane says. Though she struggled to remain positive, her personal relationships continued to suffer. “I moved on with life desperately trying to mask the pain,” she recalls. “Many of my relationships struggled and I was surviving life, but not thriving.”
It was in May 2015 that Bane ran her first Hope for the Warriors half-marathon, and it was there she became involved with the organization that set her on the path to healing she walks today. “Hope has not only helped me to truly face my past and my assaults but has helped me to begin to work through the healing process. Through Hope for the Warriors, I have found a community and family that has helped me to find my worth again,” she says.
Catherine is now married with three children. She and her family enjoy running together, and they set a family goal of running 100 miles in honor of Hope for the Warriors. “We have found that when we move as a family, we grow as a family,” she says. “Setting goals for ourselves as individuals and also as a family has been a wonderful tool for us.”
Today, Catherine is in the process of earning her degree in psychology with a special focus on military resilience. She hopes to use the painful experiences of her past to reach out to others in need of healing. She offers those who have also experienced sexual assault in the military some hard-earned words of wisdom: “The military has a brotherhood and sisterhood so strong [that] there is no place for sexual violence. It destroys the core of what the military stands for. This is your journey; be patient with yourself and never give up. You are worth fighting for, and you aren’t alone in this fight. You can get your life back,” she says. “No matter how you get through this race of life—fast or slow, running on two legs or one, or on a bike—just don’t give up.”
Refusing to let injuries become limitations
Will Himes was serving in the first infantry division of the U.S. Army in Iraq when he was involved in a bomb explosion that caused back injuries and PTSD. Before exiting military service, he was diagnosed with a hip impingement, which led to a total hip replacement in 2007. While in the military, Will says he enjoyed the opportunity to experience things he would otherwise never have had the chance to. “I had great experiences in the Army,” he says. “I got to be stationed at some wonderful duty stations and saw places I would have never seen had I not joined.”
Will’s love for athletic competition led him to seek out triathlons after his recovery from two back surgeries. “I knew that if I wanted to compete, I would need proper equipment, and I had heard that there were organizations that would help veterans get equipment,” Himes explains. After applying for the Hope for the Warriors sports and recreations program, Himes received a Trek Speed Concept 7.5 bicycle that is designed for use in triathlons.
Will has competed in three triathlons and has set his sights on the Ironman competition after realizing that even with his injuries didn’t need to hold him back. “When I started running again, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I was grossly overweight after my second back surgery, and I was on a ton of medications, and I really hated they way I looked and felt,” he says. “I saw a video on the Ironman World Championships in Kona, and I saw some amazing people with disabilities worse than mine competing in it. I told myself that day, ‘I will do that!’ I’ve competed in three short triathlons, and I love every aspect of it. I’m a horrible swimmer and not as fast of a runner as I used to be, but when I’m out there, it’s euphoric and makes me feel way better than any medication I have ever been on.”
As Will prepares himself for the Ironman competition, he hopes other veterans will avoid letting injuries limit them. “Don’t ever let yourself be defined by your disability,” he says. “You may not be the person or athlete you were before, and you may never be that again, but you need to keep moving forward and getting your butt kicked so that you can come back stronger.”
Caring for the caregivers
Ken and Patti Katter have been married 21 years, and the couple has three children. Patti can remember a time when life was simpler, when doctors appointments, seizure medications, and worries about the future weren’t a part of their family. “Before Ken was in the military, he was a police officer, and life was so happy, and just easy,” she says. “We had a 4,000 square foot home with several acres of land. We were just really happy.” After the September 11 attacks, Ken decided to serve his country in a different way, and joined the army. “The kids and I were all just really proud of him—and if you ask us now, we’d tell you we would do it all over again,” Patti says.
Ken was deployed to Iraq in 2006, and after a string of fatalities and injuries in his unit, an bomb exploded under his vehicle, knocking him unconscious. In the days that followed, Ken was deemed well enough to stay in Iraq and was given a few days to recover after the explosion. When he returned home in 2007, Patti knew there was something very wrong with her husband. “He came home on our daughter’s birthday, and we had just eaten dinner,” she explains. “Right after we finished, he asked when we were going to eat dinner. He honestly didn’t remember that we had just eaten.” Not only was Ken’s memory struggling, but Patti noticed that he jerked uncontrollably in his sleep. “I thought he was just adjusting to being home,” she says.”I didn’t know what was going on.”
She took Ken to the doctor, where he was referred immediately to a neurologist, who diagnosed him with a moderate to severe brain injury. He was also in need of emergency neck surgery and required extensive back surgery. The jerking movements he experienced in his sleep turned out to be seizures, and doctors explained he had suffered hearing loss from the explosion. Patti’s life shifted dramatically from what she had known before. Ken’s many doctor appointments required her to pull her children out of public school to homeschool them because she had no way of transporting them to and from school. Ken stayed in the military for three years during his recovery, and underwent physical and cognitive therapy.
Today, Patti has made it her life’s goal to give back to other caregivers of wounded veterans. She works for Hope for the Warriors, and hosts a talk radio show specifically for caregivers and told Kelleher to get in touch if there was anything else she could do. The Hope for the Warriors founder took Patti up on the offer, and today Patti works from home so she can care for Ken. “I tell him his job is to fish and relax because he’s already done the hard stuff,” she says. Ken volunteers at his church and often talks to other veterans. “He’s very caring and a good listener—sometimes that’s all they need,” she says.
Patti advises other military spouses in need of support to avoid the belief that they can do everything on their own. “There is help out there, but you have to reach for it,” she says. “You have to take the initial step and you don’t have to do it alone.”