By Jarid Watson
WASHINGTON — On October 23, 2007, his oldest daughter’s birthday, Ken Katter came home from Iraq– and his wife, Patti, became his caregiver.
In late 2007, Ken, was injured in a series of IED attacks on a vehicle he was in while deployed to Iraq. Ken survived, and even went on to complete his tour.
“We lost several friends in the war. A lot of our friends were killed; many of them were significantly injured with amputations and such. So, I expected that he would come home a little bit different, but I really wasn’t prepared for what I now know is our new normal.”
“Ken came home and was diagnosed very quickly with a brain injury, PTSD– he had to have an emergency neck surgery,” said Katter.
Her role and responsibilities as the wife of a disabled war veteran were drastically different from anything she had prepared for. Now, a decade later, Patti is a military veteran program coordinator at Hope for the Warriors. Hope for the Warriors is a veterans service organization that provides support programs for service members, veterans, and military families focused on transition, health and wellness, peer engagement, and connections to community resources.
“I didn’t even figure out that I was technically a caregiver until a couple of years later. I just did what I thought anyone would do in that situation who had a veteran that they love come home from war and was injured. So I went to all his doctor appointments and took care of him. And didn’t really know for sure how long I would have to do those things until a few years later, it finally set in that I will probably have to do these things for the rest of his life.”
Because of Ken’s short-term memory loss, Patti plans and organizes his calendar, and due to his physical injuries she hirers maintenance professionals to tend their lawn and help with any home improvement projects.
“He used to be the one in charge of all this stuff…And now it’s different, because now I am literally in charge of everything. And sometimes that’s hard. You go into marriage thinking it’s going to be a 50/50 relationship, or you’re going to have somebody helping you, but honestly I feel like I do everything.”
The Elizabeth Dole Foundation‘s Executive Director Steve Schwab says there are 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers with stories like Patti’s.
“There’s a new cadre of caregivers, post 9/11. I was just with some of them today, who are facing lifetime of caregiving in their 30s, with their veterans coming home from war with unexpected emotional and mental wounds and illnesses that many of us can’t see,” said Schwab.
Since its founding in 2012, by Senator Elizabeth Dole, The Elizabeth Dole Foundation has worked to empower, support, and honor our nation’s military caregivers who care for America’s wounded, ill, or injured veterans.
“Our focus is mobilizing support around that family holistically. It’s finding communities, and resources across communities to embrace and acknowledge the family and the caregiver, because the caregiver is so often left out,” Schwab said.
“So, we’ve seen extraordinary advances in battlefield medicine,” he added. “What we have not seen is an extraordinary extension of benefits, services and support of those families who are now at home supporting those veterans, who will be dealing with those circumstances for the rest of their lives.”
Patti also believes caregiver benefits need to be improved. Based on her own experiences and the stories of others, she says she knows where help is needed most.
Topping the list – a break from caregiving.
“I communicate with so many who say they absolutely need more respite care. I think respite care is number one.”
She says she has built a community of friends and family that come in and help with chores and tasks around the house, but that’s not the case for everyone.
“I’m able to work from home and I am able to make an extra income to pay people to come in and help me with things, where there are caregivers who are not able to afford to have someone come in and help them with things like yard maintenance. Because, when you’re caregiving for a loved one, it’s really a full time job in itself, and you just run out of hours in the day, and you just become exhausted.”
So where should a caregiver even begin to look for help, or a break, or support?
Schwab suggests caregivers look at HiddenHeroes.org. Hidden Heroes was also founded by Senator Elizabeth Dole after commissioning the RAND Corporation to conduct the first national comprehensive evidence-based study of military and veteran caregivers.
“What they’ll find right away…is stories of caregivers like themselves, so they immediately recognize they’re not alone. We’ve heard countless stories of caregivers who’ve gone there and who for the first time feel like they’re are others like them facing the same circumstances they are. And once they identify and realize they are a caregiver, because so many of them don’t even associate themselves with that term,” Schwab said.
Schwab also points to the peer support offered by the Hidden Heroes official Facebook page, too.
“And so we’ve created a thriving community facilitated by two full time caregivers, curated by caregivers, and that’s where the magic happens. Once you connect a caregiver to a peer, it changes their life.”
HiddenHeroes.org can also connect caregivers to 200 other resources selected for their needs. Schwab says they’ve vetted each one to prevent veterans and military families from being scammed.
“We invite caregivers to come there, and we invite groups who want to support [caregivers] to come to that site and let us know because we’re always adding additional resources to the site.”
For information from Veterans Affairs on caregiver support, click here.