Being a doula for military Families, creating charities for the homeless or for wives to have military ball were some of the duties Austin Carrigg was recognized for when she received the Military News’ Heroes at Home honor.
“I was honestly shocked,” Austin Carrigg said describing how she felt being nominated. “I feel like I don’t do anything particularly special.”
She is a military wife to Army 1st Sgt. Joshua Carrigg, and mother to two biological children Christian, 16 and Nikolas, 14, and Melanie,5, who they adopted as a baby. Nikolas and Melanie have complex medical needs.
In her journey of navigating the waters of protecting her children, she has become an advocate for military Families with exceptional family members and children on Medicaid. While she thinks she does it for selfish reasons, she helps other military Families who need help make their process easier.
“I am doing this for my daughter,” she said. “I mean I know it is helping a lot of other people, but at the end of the day, I am just trying to protect my child which is what any other parent would do.
“I think really at the end of all of this we really just want to make this process easier for other families.”
With her strength, compassion and determination, she gives a voice to those who need one.
Carrigg and her husband Joshua were high school sweethearts. They got married 15 years ago after he graduated basic training. Joshua, who is now attached to the 3d Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) has served two tours in Iraq.
After their youngest son Nikolas was diagnosed with a rare medical condition that could have potentially been passed on genetically, Austin and Joshua decided to apply to adopt a child with special needs instead of having another child they knew they could make sick. They didn’t expect to hear back about a baby after five years of waiting, as they started moving forward with their Family and careers. But out of the blue they received a phone call about Melanie, and she became theirs within a couple of weeks.
“I remember very distinctly being in my house on my knees crying (and) overwhelmed and (the adoption facilitator) had to remind me ‘you need to hang up now and call your husband,’” Austin recalled.
Melanie was born with Down Syndrome and a congenital heart defect. At 8 weeks old, she had open heart surgery. She was discharged for 12 hours until they noticed something was not right.
“(We) took her back, walked her in, handed her to a nurse and she quit breathing,” Austin described. “They were screaming ‘she’s not going to make it; if she makes it we are going to be lucky.’ They couldn’t get the breathing tube in because she was so tiny.”
Melanie went back on the ventilator for a few days and then was released from the hospital again. At the same time, Joshua received new orders for Joint Base Lewis-McCord, Washington. Even with Melanie, they could not ask for a second compassionate reassignment, considering they were stationed in Boston for Nikolas.
“They told us, you PCS or you get out, those are your only two options,” she recalled. “I got on a train with her and my son, and we (spent) five days on Amtrak across the country because neither one of them were safe to fly. And we started new in Seattle.
“It felt like a no brainer, the military has always taken care of us, and we have this great insurance who would get out when you have a baby as sick as we did. So we moved.”
The Exceptional Family Member Program works across all services in order to assist Families who have complex medical conditions. The program needs to be made aware before a Family leaves an installation to make sure the new installation will be able to fit the needs of the Family. However, the system sometimes gets very complicated.
When the Carrigg’s arrived at Joint Base Lewis McCord, they quickly realized they were not going to receive all the services their children needed.
“The moment we walked in the door of EMFP (at JBLM) they said you shouldn’t be here (and) you need to put another compassionate in,” Austin recalled. “But we couldn’t because you can’t have a compassionate for the same reason twice. It took two and a half years before we could justify that we needed to move for a different reason.”
Austin felt alone.
“I didn’t know where to turn to and I didn’t know what to do,” she said.
She started the first support group for military Families with exceptional Family members attached to installations. It helped other Families know where to turn, the right way to accomplish tasks, and also to reach out to others who may need to be aware of what Family members need. There are now support groups on 16 installations.
“Remember my daughter”
At age 2, doctors thought Melanie would never walk or talk. Austin remembered the doctors telling her that they shouldn’t expect much from her.
Now at age 5, Melanie goes to an all deaf school and has a community of her own. She runs, plays, and jumps.
“She does all the things they said she would never do,” Austin said.
However, when Medicaid went under attack in Congress, Austin saw that Melanie’s quality of life would be affected.
“If Medicaid were cut, or if she was to lose some of her Medicaid services, she would have to be in the hospital (and be covered under daily hospital expenses) which is quite ironic because she is quite a healthy little girl.”
Austin was invited by a friend to go tell her Family’s story on Capitol Hill. She has knocked on doors and has told Melanie’s story.
“When we have meetings with senator or we do press conferences we say to them a lot ‘remember my daughter. When you vote, remember she is the person that your vote is going to affect.’”
When she’s received emails from senators saying how her story changed their minds, it confirms for her that she is on the right path.
She is involved with organizations that work to fix Tricare and Medicaid for children, and works tirelessly to empower other families to share their stories. When she is not being an advocate, Austin continues to build on the work she did to make her first support group, and uses her free time to help other military Families with exceptional Family members from helping them reach out to EFMP centers to ask questions or write compassionate reassignment packets.
“(I) often tell them they know what is best for their child, and to not stop fighting,” she said.
“I can do this on my own”
Earlier this month, Austin had an opportunity to visit the Virginia Governor’s Mansion for a reception celebrating the finalists of Heroes at Home. There she met Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources Dr. Daniel Carey.
The Heroes at Home honor has given her another platform to share her story that is already making a wider difference in the community, specifically when she met with Carey and explained Tricare to him.
“He had no idea that were all the problems that there are, and he gave me his email address and I emailed him and he promised to look into things and try to fix things,” Carrigg said. “He said their hope is that they can fix Medicaid and Tricare at least in their state, so families coming in don’t have to worry which is pretty amazing.”
But throughout all her trials and triumphs, she has learned a lot about herself. That she can is able to stand on her own and help others.
“My husband is often gone and a lot of people want to say when you get married you have a partner in all things and I do when he’s home and when he’s available, but when he’s not home and it not available being able to find that I can do this, I can take care of the kids, I can help other Families on my own is helpful,” she said.
Also in her work and being a military spouse, she has learned to cherish every day.
“If they are having a bad day, or they aren’t meeting a milestone that is OK because they are alive and you’re world drastically changes when you’ve almost lost your child and we’ve almost lost her three times,” she said. “You realize what is important.”
Pentagram Staff Writer Abigail Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.