When a U.S. service member is severely wounded, the recovery is draining on the primary caregivers, emotionally, physically and financially. Their world is turned upside down. In talking to relatives of these four wounded service members, Post-Gazette reporter Michael A. Fuoco found they felt the government should provide more support for primary caregivers, especially those who gave up jobs and receive no stipend, medical insurance, mental health counseling or respite care while tending to their loved ones.
Cheryl Gansner of Knoxville, Tenn., had stomach problems last year but put off seeking treatment. Her priority was her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Bryan Gansner, who suffered debilitating leg wounds when his Humvee ran over an improvised explosive device on July 28, 2006, in Kirkuk, Iraq.
When Ms. Gansner couldn't take the pain anymore, she saw a doctor only to learn she needed surgery for a severe acid reflux condition that could have been caused -- and worsened -- by stress.
Primary caregivers of wounded warriors far too often neglect their own health, advocates note and studies show.
"I definitely had been neglecting myself for a long time," Ms. Gansner said. "I still have health issues, too many for someone who is only 27 years old."
And it's not just physical. Ms. Gansner said in an interview and in a blog she posts that the war injuries have tested the couple's marriage. They had been married barely a year when he was injured during his second tour of duty in Iraq. He had been in the Army for 10 years.
Mr. Gansner, 31, retired from the service after a year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and 20 months of outpatient physical and occupational therapy. His wife has returned to work as a social worker, a job she quit while her husband recovered.
With plates and screws in both heels and ankles, Mr. Gansner has limited mobility and cannot stand in place for more than a few minutes. He works for a company that makes bomb-defusing robots, but like other people with severe brain injuries, he has difficulty remembering and is confused easily. And he has emotional scars -- post traumatic stress and depressive anxiety disorders.
"Day to day, I don't know what situation he's going to be in. Is he going to be angry that day, sad that day or happy that day?" Ms. Gansner said. "It definitely takes a toll on you. I'm not going to say there isn't resentment because there is. There is no set way to cope with all of this."
As the spouse of an Army retiree, she said she is much better off than parents of the wounded and other caregivers, who unlike her family, are not covered by the Tricare military health plan. Additional government support is needed for caregivers, recognizing the sacrifices they make financially, emotionally and physically, she said.
"Something has to happen. For those who provide full-time care, there needs to be something for them. It's absurd for them to not have something."
A world turned upside down
In talking to relatives of these four wounded service members, Post-Gazette staff writer Michael A. Fuoco found they felt the government should provide more support for primary caregivers, especially those who gave up jobs and receive no stipend, medical insurance, mental health counseling or respite care while tending to their loved ones.