‘Facing Stigma’ with Faun O.

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“I was very familiar with the caregiver role; it’s something I’ve been doing my whole life without even knowing it. I’ve always been kind of a helper and empath of sorts. I adopted two children out of foster care and when my youngest daughter was born, she was in the NICU for five months and had two open heart surgeries. I had four young children when I met Danny, but I had known of him for a long time. Danny and I went to the same high school and he actually played football with my cousin. Once we decided to make a life together, I saw that he was struggling and it was natural for me to want to get in there and help; however, I knew nothing about the military or his past. I had no idea the realm that I was entering into and really had to learn on the fly. I fell in love with someone who served for eight years, did back to back combat deployments, and was struggling with a TBI and PTSD. I had to learn fast. My not knowing anything about the military also meant I didn’t know anything about PTS or any of these other things he was dealing with. I couldn’t really understand what was going on and I just saw somebody struggling with things that I thought shouldn’t be difficult. I really dove in and just started reading as much as I could in case I could find something that would help him get through the day. I had to figure out the VA system and make sure he was getting the assistance he needed. I also had to make sure he didn’t slip away into himself or do other self destructive things. It’s a hard position to be in especially when you have four young children. I did what I had to do to keep our family intact and Danny alive. June 2012 was almost the breaking point when he called me to say goodbye and attempted to take his own life. I drove to the hospital to sit with him and just silently wept inside. My heart ached with every beat while I held his hand and told him we would get through it. And we did.

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After that incident there were two distinct turning points for us. The first was getting him properly diagnosed for his TBI. That opened a lot of doors for him in the VA and access to services. The second was finding a provider who helped him work through the childhood and combat trauma he experienced. It was critical that we address his mental health, but also my mental health; learning to set boundaries and advocate for myself was equally as important. We’ve been getting help since 2012 and it’s something we’re committed to doing long-term so we can navigate what war sent home. As Danny started to get healthier and learn more about the things he was struggling with, he was able to take on more and it expanded our ability to help other people as a result. We’ve had three of Danny’s infantry guys live with us and helped get them back on their feet. That was a team effort by both of us; from helping them through the emotional parts of therapy, to making appointments for them, to helping them fight the VA for care. Through this journey I became an Elizabeth Dole Foundation fellow for the State of California which really introduced me to the role of caregiving and how much support our veteran and caregiver communities need. I really started advocating for veterans, but also my fellow caregivers because being a caregiver means finding the balance between selfless and selfish. Caregivers need a support system too and that’s the biggest takeaway I have from all of this. I can be a support system for a lot of people and I have broad shoulders in that aspect, but I need a support system too when I’m struggling. I’m lucky to work for a non profit, The Independence Fund as a Program Manager and I get to support veterans and their families every day. Veterans carry the burden of war home and their spouses and children are the ones to help them unpack that. The reality is you’re in this together with them, but most people don’t understand what vets and their families go through. Danny is my biggest hero and my greatest challenge. I would not be the person I am today and doing the work I’m doing if it wasn’t for him.”

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Healing the hidden wounds of war

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