“I saw him leaning underneath the weight of a Nation…I saw him leaning, and so I leaped; and I dropped my bags and my balance.”
From “Mountains,” by Callie Barr
When Callie Barr, wife of Marine Gunnery Sergeant Matt Barr, made the leap described in “Mountains”, she joined the estimated 1.1 million individuals a Rand Corporation study found are caring for a service member or veteran who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. These spouses, parents, siblings, or friends are coping with challenges no one prepared them for.
Callie’s caregiver story began when Matt returned from his 2005 deployment to Iraq a changed man. “Matt was so angry; he had terrible migraines and some short term memory loss,” she said, “But Marines are supposed to be tough and not show any sign of weakness.” So the young couple tried to deal with the symptoms on their own. They saw married friends in the unit struggling also, often separating. “Matt said, ‘Please don’t leave me; I have demons and I need your help’. He and I finally talked and he shared everything he went through. It was difficult, but now we were together trying to make sense of our new reality,” said Callie.
Shipboard training missions, a recruiting assignment and an Afghanistan deployment shaped the next years for the Barr’s, including welcoming daughter Maelee to the family. An assignment to Marine Corps Base Quantico brought them to Virginia a few years ago. Matt’s health struggles continued. “He was sick all the time, still having migraines and then was hospitalized with appendicitis,” Callie noted. While he recovered, Callie convinced Matt to talk to his doctors about all of his symptoms. Testing found Matt had an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury and he was referred to the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Fort Belvoir.
“…I braced our babies and stumbled two feet at a time until we caught each other somewhere in the middle…”
Now in full caregiver mode, Callie realized she needed help. “I needed support. I was navigating the medical system for Matt with a 3-year old and I was pregnant. At one point I felt like I was drowning, trying to take care of Matt, Maelee and me,” she admitted. Because the NICOE has programs for the caregiver as well as the patient, Callie started meeting with a social worker and a support group. She shared the poetry she’d been writing as an emotional outlet with the group, which led to an invitation to read a poem at a NICOE caregiver appreciation luncheon sponsored by Blue Star Families. Callie was asked to join BSF’s new Operation Family Caregiver (OFC) program designed to provide on line support to caregivers across the country. “Getting involved with OFC has saved me,” Callie said. “It’s a platform for caregiver advocacy and helped me look beyond myself.” Callie said Matt supports her commitment to OFC and is back to work himself while continuing to heal. “And because he went to the NICOE, it has encouraged some of the Marines he served with to seek help.”
Asking for help is also important for caregivers Callie shared. “Recognize that it is okay to take care of yourself. It is not selfish. You are important; you are the linchpin to the whole caregiving process. At the end of the day, who cares what people think. It’s about your life, the rest of your life.”
“…And we will live for that one day when our children will stand at the base of our bond and we’ll hear their voices in chorus “Look! There! At this failure of failure At how the testing of their time, the vulnerability of a fall, has made them into Mountains.”
Military spouse and caregiver Melissa Meadows can relate to the emotions expressed in “Mountains”. She has been caring for husband Army National Guard Sergeant First Class Jon Meadows since he was medically evacuated from Afghanistan to Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in January 2013.
The Meadows had a comfortable citizen-soldier life in Connecticut where Jon’s job at the Groton shipyard was occasionally interrupted by Guard duties and deployments. Melissa’s work as a pediatric office nurse and care of their three boys at home kept her busy through those interruptions. When she got the call to meet Jon at Fort Belvoir, she was planning on a short stay — just long enough to get him situated for treatment of a suspected thyroid condition. After her husband was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury, Melissa discovered that even with nursing experience she wasn’t prepared for caring for a Wounded Warrior.
“You lose yourself during this time,” she explained. “It’s all-consuming being a nurse, secretary and military aide, making sure Jon got to all of his medical appointments and fulfilled military requirements.” She also described having a sense of drowning during the early weeks of Jon’s treatment, just trying to grasp and hold on to any helping hand. While spending time at the Belvoir USO center, Melissa met other caregivers. “We reached out to each other as if we were each other’s life raft.”
She also reached out to The Yellow Ribbon Fund. YRF had helped with a rental car when she first arrived in Virginia and as time went on the organization arranged for the Meadows’ children to visit their dad. She began attending monthly YSF caregiver outings. “The activities get you out of the clinical, hospital environment, and let you connect with people in normal ways. These are moments when you can let go of being a caregiver,” Meadows shared.
Jon was medically retired last August and the couple remained in the area so he can be treated at the Washington DC Veterans Administration Polytrauma Center. Melissa’s caregiver role continues because Jon’s TBI has left him permanently disabled, but he’s experienced many hopeful improvements. He attends Yellow Ribbon Fund outings and the couple has taken up art as a stress relief activity through the Art League of Alexandria, Virginia’s Injured Military Personnel + Art program. While sculpting and painting have been therapeutic for Jon, he’s also shown real talent, Melissa shared. IMP-art held an exhibit of his work at the Art League, viewable at https://www.flickr.com/photos/theartleague/sets/72157657419646804.
Melissa offered her own advice for fellow military caregivers. “Find other caregivers! Even if it is only online — the feeling of not being alone is so important to your sanity. Plus, everyone has something to share, even if it’s just an ear for listening or a shoulder to cry on. I couldn’t have made it without my fellow caregivers.”
(You can read Callie Barr’s poem “Mountains” at dcmilitary.com.)