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.
U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Tim Maxwell came to Pittsburgh in October 2006 to receive the President's Award from the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania. He was honored for establishing the wounded warrior barracks at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where injured Marines can recover together at the first-of-its-kind facility now named for him.
At the time, Mr. Maxwell was recovering from an Oct. 24, 2004, mortar attack at Camp Kalsu, a base in Iraq. Two pieces of shrapnel sliced into his brain, requiring several surgeries and years of rehab. He had to relearn how to walk and use the right side of his body. He lost his peripheral vision and his short-term memory was affected.
But after making steady progress, significant physical and neurological declines began in 2007. Doctors discovered that shrapnel remained in his brain, exposing him to heavy metal toxins. A year ago last Thursday, doctors removed the shrapnel. His rehab began anew.
Mr. Maxwell, 44, of Dumfries, Va., retired June 30 after 21 years of service, including tours of duty in the first Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq. For the most part, he is self-sufficient but has minimal use of his right hand and has difficulty moving his right leg.
Because of the cognitive loss, he gets overstimulated easily and has difficulty in large gatherings, movie theaters or restaurants, said his wife, Shannon, with whom he has three children, ages 14, 11 and 6.
"As a spouse, there's a huge array of emotions," said Ms. Maxwell, 40. "You grieve for the loss of the person you once knew because traumatic brain injury, either minimal or on a grand scale, affects personality. It affects your hopes and dreams you once had."
They had always budgeted to live on his Marine Corps salary, so the necessity of quitting her marketing job to care for her husband didn't cause major financial hardship. But that's not the case for far too many caregivers of wounded warriors, particularly parents, she said.
The Maxwells have committed themselves to helping other wounded soldiers and their families. Mr. Maxwell has a support Web site, www.sempermax.com. And in 2006, Ms. Maxwell co-founded Help for the Warriors, a nonprofit organization that supports service members and families affected by line-of-duty deaths or injuries.
At the same time, they have recommitted to each other, renewing their marriage vows following Lt. Col. Maxwell's retirement ceremony, one month before their 20th wedding anniversary.