May is #MonthoftheMilitaryCaregiver, but here at PsychArmor Institute, we are working every day to support military caregivers, veterans and their families. Thanks to the generosity of USAA, PsychArmor can offer more than a dozen FREE, on-demand courses specifically for caregivers.
All PsychArmor courses are developed by nationally recognized subject matter experts to be evidence-based and clinically informed. We’ve also established Advisory Committees to help guide our schools. The Caregiver Advisory Committee consists of leaders from the healthcare, business, nonprofit, and military sectors. We also have an incredible group of 15 Caregiver Consultants whose first-hand experiences as military caregivers are invaluable to shaping our courses.
Jennifer Mackinday is one of those consultants. Jennifer found herself thrust into the role of military caregiver when her younger brother, James, an Army veteran, was injured in Iraq in 2005. She is now the Hidden Heroes Caregiver Community Program Coordinator and an alumna of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s Caregiver Fellows program.
Following the tragic events of September 11, my brother James decided to join the Army and was assigned to a Stryker Brigade Combat Team. He deployed to Mosul, Iraq in 2004, where he survived a mess hall attack on Christmas. A month later, while he was on patrol, his vehicle drove over an IED. The explosion resulted in war wounds that he is still living with today.
During James’ recovery, I quit my full-time job in advertising and embarked on a new career as a caregiver for the next nine years. I personally didn’t know much about the Army when all of this happened. Sure, I understood the rank structure from my brother, but it took years before I felt comfortable with all the terminology, not to mention the hurdles and medical complexities my brother was now facing.
I experienced the isolation and darkness that a lot of caregivers go through in their journey. Once my brother was medically retired, our community really didn’t engage us. Our friends and neighbors still cared for us, they just didn’t know how to support us. They didn’t know what to say or do, and we didn’t know how to ask.
In fall of 2012, after navigating a medical emergency with my brother, I contemplated suicide. Another veteran who recognized what I was going through intervened and got me connected to Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP), and that really turned our life in a new direction.
The focus of my advocacy as a Dole Fellow and pubic speaker for WWP is to raise awareness around suicide ideation and how we can keep each other safe. I’m now blessed with the opportunity to speak publicly about that. In all the years I was feeling alone, there were thousands of other caregivers and veterans feeling the same way, and the way we heal is to help and support on another.
When James was recovered enough to not need me full time, I had a huge gap on my resume, my skills were rusty, and I did not have the networks that I once had. To get myself ready for the workplace, I volunteered with several nonprofit organizations, and those experiences led to part-time and now full time employment. It’s often hard for caregivers to realize this, but for me, going back to work full time and spending time on my own self-care – whether that’s yoga or a long weekend trip with a friend – those things make me a better caregiver, and make my brother healthier too. When we’re in the thick of care giving, we often forget that the veteran we are caring for was and is an incredibly strong person who’s willing to sacrifice his or her own life in defense of our country. The more we can build up their sense of self-strength and resiliency, the better.
I want to make sure people find their voice. It doesn’t help someone to DO for them, but to provide the tools, information and support that empower them to do for themselves. What I hope caregivers take away from the Hidden Heroes Caregiver Community is empowerment. Empowerment to both help themselves and then turn it around and help somebody else by paying it forward.
PsychArmor shares this mission. They provide courses that are available on-demand, 24/7 to empower caregivers like me to act on behalf of ourselves and our veterans – and that’s huge. When I was care giving full-time, I was also a mother of a young son. It might be 11pm before I was able to “catch up” with information that could help me. There’s a high veteran population in places like Puerto Rico, Alaska, and Hawaii, but like my family, they are geographically separated from the base. Military families like ours are experiencing struggles all over the globe right now, and on-demand, free access helps meet all of us when and where we need it.
Technology made a difference for our family, and I’m honored to serve as a Caregiver Consultant for PsychArmor to help empower others. I often think how different my first several years of care giving would have been if I would have had the knowledge, training, support and connections to experts that PsychArmor provides right at my fingertips. I’m grateful for the opportunity to help shape this effort that is easing the burden for today’s military families and caregivers. Paying it forward – that’s how you know you’re healing.