It was a modern-day love story. They met playing World of Warcraft, an online game where players create characters and move through various quests and challenges.
Jamie was playing at home in Massachusetts. Some 800 miles away at Camp Lejeune, N.C., was Gilbert, a combat Marine with 4 deployments to Iraq. Gilbert played the game to relax and unwind. He loved adventure and the game had an endless supply.
They played the same character and Jamie noticed Gilbert was always a few steps ahead of her. One day, she logged in and saw they were on the same quest. She decided to send him an in-game text: “Fancy meeting you here,” she wrote. “Do I know you?” Gilbert shot back. And, so began an online friendship as they teamed up to take on quests together. Their friendship blossomed as texts moved to emails and finally that first phone call. “I nearly cried when he called,” says Jamie. “I felt like I knew him so well and he was even more amazing on the phone.”
After several months, they decided to meet in person. Gilbert left Camp Lejeune and flew to Western Massachusetts to meet Jamie, along with her friends and family. It was a bold first date and Jamie was impressed by his confidence. “He’s the bravest man I’ve ever met,” says Jamie.
For their second date, it was her turn to be brave: She flew to Camp Lejeune for the Marine Corps ball. That’s when Gilbert proposed. “I said yes, because I couldn’t imagine life without him,” she said. They were reassigned to Camp Pendleton, Calif., before Gilbert left the Marines in 2010, where they moved to Massachusetts to be closer to Jamie’s family.
Like most young couples, they had their growing pains. But there were other pressing issues beneath the surface. Gilbert was becoming increasingly irritable and withdrawn. He was complaining about not getting any sleep and feeling anxious. Jamie was desperate to help but she didn’t know where to start. “I think there’s a real stigma with reaching out for help and it’s a giant stumbling block,” she said.
They eventually did reach out to staff at the Leeds VA Medical Center, where Gilbert was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Gilbert would be getting the help he needed–but Jamie would be central to his recovery.
Jamie is a daughter, a wife, and a caregiver to a United States Marine. After 12 years of marriage, she was accepted into VA’s Caregiver Support Program and now co-leads a peer mentoring group at the VA Boston Healthcare System. She agreed to talk with us about her life as a caregiver and what it means to care for America’s war wounded.
How did you learn about the VA caregiver program?
I heard about it from several places, including the VA rep at Gilbert’s college. My first thought was that I should be in this program. I called the VA and it was really easy to apply. I go to the meetings at my local VA and have regular calls with peer mentors to keep myself grounded and focused on what’s important.
How has it helped you?
It saved my marriage, and quite possibly my life. Before I knew about the program, I was trying to manage my husband’s PTSD alone. I was embarrassed by my inability to make him feel safe and happy. I didn’t know what to do and felt like I was all alone. The program not only gave me tools to help my husband, it gave me a safety network of people who knew what I was talking about. Being a part of this program is so very important for caregivers. I cannot imagine trying to do this without their help.
I was surprised to learn that there were so many people here in my area going through the exact same thing. Some were caring for spouses, others were caring for parents or siblings, but we were all dealing with this incredibly difficult and emotional job of being a caregiver for our Veteran. When we meet up and talk about night terrors, or flashbacks, or stubbornness, we all recognize the symptoms. We might not all be in the same chapter of our lives, but our stories share more parallels than differences.
What is the hardest part of being a caregiver?
It’s very personal, and every situation is unique. But you have to have a vast store of love for your Veteran. And patience. So much patience. And this job never ends. I work day and night to take care of my husband, to manage stressors and triggers and it’s very exhausting.
How do you take care of yourself?
I do find it difficult sometimes. But the caregiver program helped me realize the importance of making time for myself, doing things I enjoy or spending time with friends outside the home (when time and symptoms allow). It isn’t easy to remember who you were “before” but it’s so important to take care of yourself.
One thing that I’ve noticed, that does not get talked about very much, is how tiring being a caregiver is on an emotional level. We do most of the emotional labor in our relationships with our Veterans and it is difficult to even want to care for yourself. But we have to make the time to restore our own energies so we can continue supporting our Veterans.
If a caregiver finds herself struggling to hold onto their personal identity, the best advice I can think of is to find a support network and make time for yourself. It can be the quiet hours in the middle of the night while your household is asleep. It can be an extra few minutes in the car after you drop off the kids. Any small thing that you can do for yourself is important. And, if this option is available to you, take yourself on a day trip. Go to the library for some peace and quiet, go to the gym, or shopping for you, get your nails done… any of the things that you did “before” that made you feel like you.
What would you want other caregivers to know?
The most essential thing is just to know about the Caregiver Support Program. I couldn’t imagine ever going back to the time when I was trying to do everything by myself. Having a dedicated staff that is knowledgeable about Veteran and caregiver issues is so valuable. It’s easy for caregivers to feel overlooked or forgotten. We do so much to maintain our families, our households and our Veterans. Having the Caregiver Support Program for us has been invaluable. Thank you for caring for us caregivers.
If you or someone you love is experiencing difficulties related to deployment or military service, contact your nearest VA medical center or call 1–800–273–8255 and press 1. VA’s Caregiver Support Program offers a range of services from training and education to respite care, a telephone support line, and other services for caregivers of Veterans enrolled for VA health care. Caregivers can call the VA Caregiver Support Line at 1-855-260-3274 to learn more or visit us online.
Brittney Brown contributed to this story.