This was published as a two-part series on how love, faith and self are tested when supporting a wounded Soldier -- and the success that comes with patience over time.Some people just can't take no for an answer.When everyone involved in her husband's medical care told Patti Walker that he needed to be in a convalescent home, she said no. She told the doctors no. She told the leadership at Walter Reed Army Hospital no, she told TRICARE no.She eventually won.When she brought Kevin home, she brought with her a determination to provide him all the love and care he needed to set him on a long road to recovery. In doing so, she learned what it meant to be a caregiver.Her tenacity and now her commitment to helping caregivers get through the harrowing responsibilities they are dealing with, earned her an Elizabeth Dole Foundation Fellowship.With about 200 applications to choose from, the Foundation whittled the selection to 29."In Patti's case, what stood out to me was her never-give-up kind of attitude," said Liz Rotenberry, Fellows Program coordinator. "With everything she went through, from the time her husband was injured and the time the doctors are telling her to give up on him and to prepare for the worst and prepare for his death. She was not going to stand by that and she used her faith to push her through believing that he was going to come through this and survive."The fellowship gives the Wounded Warrior Program advocate the resources she needs to expand her work in helping caregivers."This fellowship means that I will be able to reach out to state and federal leadership to put out information on what kind of care caregivers need and what they are lacking," Patti said. "And to help create support groups within our state to spread the message on how caregivers are hidden heroes."When she became a caregiver, Patti had no idea what it would do to her mentally and physically. All of her energy was expended on making sure Kevin had what he needed. While tending to Kevin, she was also raising two children and also became a caregiver to her mother who had dementia.
Through it she lost herself."I was so busy taking care of everybody else that I forgot to take care of me," she said. "I didn't matter anymore. I was eating my emotions."Then the wakeup call.She had bad chest pains one day and realized she had neglected herself to the point she had become unhealthy. The realization was like a smack in the face. If something was to happen to her, who would take care of the kids, her husband and her mother?"It was like a horrible nightmare to me," she said.From that point on she started taking care of herself.Her experiences helped her see the need for some kind of organized caregivers support group. She started a small non-profit and later became a Wounded Warrior Project advocate, which puts her in touch with the families of wounded Soldiers."I feel like getting the word out on caregiving is incredibly important because I don't think people really realize how much it takes out of a person," she said.Her goal is to build a strong support group for caregivers. Not a group where people sit around and complain, she said. Rather, it would be a time to come together, maybe do a craft and just take time for them and talk to others. Through those conversations people can share what works for them and get the moral support they need.Her plan is to start reaching out to people in the surrounding communities who can help get these groups formed."I think if you start a grassroots program that's really strong, it can spread," she said. "If I was able to start one here on Fort Riley, or in Manhattan or Junction (City) … and then somebody moves, they could start it in their new community."Soon she will start calling on chambers of commerce, state representatives and the governor.
"I'd like to talk to as many people as possible," she said. "This is big, it's important, it's needed."Patti's journey
The moment Kevin swung her around and gave her a kiss as the clock tower in Denver struck the midnight hour to welcome 2001, Patti knew he was the one for her.Barely a month earlier the two had started chatting on AOL-Love.com. He was a recruiter in Denver and she lived in Fort Collins, Colorado. Kevin believes AOL was simply the conduit God used to bring them together."She and I have said from the very beginning, we think God had a plan for us," he said. "That is why he brought us together … with the way that they expected me not to survive. And then, if I was to survive, they said I was going to be in a vegetative state. But that didn't happen. I think God had a plan specifically for her to be able to help others, especially wounded Soldiers. And that's what she has done."They weren't thinking about God's plan as they enjoyed a whirlwind courtship. On May 3, 2001, the couple looked each other in the eyes and vowed to love one another in sickness and in health, through the good and the bad.Little did either know just how those words would be tested.The day after 9/11 they found out she was pregnant. A little boy would be joining their family, which included Kevin's step-daughter, Brittany."Then he got orders to Fort Riley," she said.She recalled with a smile the day he came home and told her "we're going to Manhattan."
"I was so excited," she said. "I was like -- Manhattan, big city, we're going to have to find private schools for the kids, but the culture is going to be amazing. He let me go on for like 10 minutes. And then he looked at me and goes 'Manhattan, Kansas.'"Despite early reservations, Patti fell in love with the area and settled right in
She started learning what it was to be an Army wife during a time of war.On May 2, 2004, the day before the couple would celebrate their third wedding anniversary, Kevin called her from Ar-Ramadi, Iraq, and promised to call her again the next day.That call never came.Part 2:All day Patti Walker waited as a pit grew in her stomach -- she knew something was wrong. That night, she went outside on the patio, the moon was full and the hours ticked by.The next morning, baby Kevin was at the daycare center, Brittany had gotten on the bus for school when the phone finally rang -- but it wasn't Kevin."I got the phone call that Kevin had been wounded," she said, recalling the day like it was yesterday. "I walked outside … and I dropped to my knees and I told God, 'I know you have Kevin in your hands.'"She prayed for strength then drove to Fort Riley Elementary School where the principal called Brittany down to the office."Me and the principal and the counselor told her that daddy had been hurt really bad," she said.
The next several days were mass confusion. Lines of information were being crossed. At one point, she was told he had returned to duty. Then another call came and she was told he had lost an eye.
While she was getting mixed reports, Kevin spent four days in Baghdad, Iraq where he underwent brain surgery."Then they got him stable enough to move him to Landstuhl, (Germany)," Patti said. "The nurse from Landstuhl called me from (the) ICU. She said 'Mrs. Walker, the incision looks good.'"She finally learned the full extent of her husband's injuries and that he had a craniotomy."That's when she explained to me that he had a one-inch by one-inch piece of shrapnel that penetrated his brain, it cut through the dura of his brain, sheared the frontal lobe and he lost the eye," she said.Having worked on the neurosurgical floor in Cheyenne, Wyoming, she knew it was bad. Her fears were confirmed when the nurse called back and told her they couldn't get his fever down and the brain was continuing to swell.They told her "we are not feeling confident," she said. "We are feeling as though it's possibly imminent death. We need to expedite your passport to get you here to Germany."What she did after that call; however, put her at peace. As she did on May 3, she went outside and dropped to her knees."It was the most incredible feeling I've ever had," she said. "It was like God dropped a wet blanket over me, and I had complete peace. It was the most beautiful thing I've ever felt in my life. I've never felt it since and I was calm. Everything that they were telling me, I was OK with. I had complete peace."She and Kevin's parents went to Walter Reed to wait for their passports, but in a few days, she learned he had stabilized enough to come back to America. The moment she first saw him, it took all her strength to remain calm. Even though he was on life support and not lucid, she believed he could hear them."When we saw him, we didn't recognize him," she said, tearing up at the memory. "His head was huge. His eye was coming out because the nerve was severed so they had to sew it into his head. He had tubes everywhere, machines breathing for him."The only way she recognized him was by the tattoos on his arms.The doctor showed her the scan of his brain where the frontal lobe had been completely sheared. The neurosurgeon told her to start looking for a nursing home because if he was to survive, it would be in a vegetative state."I got mad," she said. "I looked at him and I said, 'first of all, you're not God. So, you don't know the plan for Kevin. Are we done with this conversation?' He looked at me and said, 'yes, ma'am.' And I said, 'good, so am I.'Bargaining with God
From that moment, she knew she would be a caregiver. Kevin would come home with her. But she also knew she couldn't do it alone -- so she prayed. She prayed every day and made bargains with God."If you bring him back to me, I'll like sports -- I won't argue with him about that ever again," she said. "If you bring him back, I won't nag. If you bring them back to me, I will help others for the rest of my life. I promise. I promise, I will help others for the rest of my life."Twenty-two days later, the doctors gave her a choice -- either trach him or try to wean him off life support."I don't want him to have a trach," she said. "I didn't want him in a vegetative state and I knew he wouldn't want that. I told him to wind it down. It's God's plan, not ours."Kevin started breathing on his own. But when they woke him up, he had no memory of his past. He didn't know Patti, the kids, his parents or his Soldiers. Patti wasn't deterred. She started making plans and trying to figure out what to do, all the while sitting by his bedside and taking him for walks."It was an absolutely beautiful day," she said recalling the day Kevin made a turn for the better. "He was in a wheelchair and he still didn't know anything. I was thinking out loud and talking to him.And I said, 'well love, I guess I'm going to go back to work, and you can stay at home with the kids.' He looked at me like he didn't understand and then he said, 'You haven't worked in five years. Are my Soldiers OK, what the hell happened?' Just like that -- it all came back."While Kevin had just taken a huge step in his fight, Patti's was just about to begin.Fighting the system
While at Walter Reed, Patti met Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, who handed her his card and told her if she ever needed anything at all to call him. She put the card away, not knowing she would pull it out again and hold Roberts to his word."I wanted to bring Kevin home," she said. "I was fighting everybody. I was fighting the general. I was fighting the hospital (deputy commander of clinical service). I was fighting TRICARE. I was so tired. I was worried about my kids. I wanted to come home."Everyone was telling her to put Kevin in a special-care home. But she had promised to stay with him through sickness and health and she wasn't about to renege on her promise.She had no one supporting her quest to bring him back to Fort Riley because she knew deep in her heart that he would thrive better if he was around his children and his Soldiers. She remembered the business card."I called him and said 'I need your help,'" she said. "I don't know what Pat Roberts did but we were on a hop the next day."While Kevin focused on recovery, Patti focused on the politics and red tape surrounding him. Today, Kevin recognizes the extent of what his wife did for him."I wouldn't be where I'm at today," he said. "She was an integral part of me reestablishing myself. She's done everything for me from the very beginning. Since I first got hurt, due to the severity of my injury, she basically had to take care of me from the beginning. I couldn't do anything on my own for long time. She had to be the one that helped me learn how to be an adult again."
Through it all, she never forgot her promise to God."I created the Wounded Soldier Outreach and Support which was a nonprofit that provided airline tickets and information, everything that you can think of for wounded Soldiers," she said.
Her office was at Army Community Service and she had 70 volunteers working with her. All the while she is taking Kevin to Topeka three times a week and caring for the children. There was physical therapy and plastic surgery to get scheduled.As the months turned into years Kevin steadily improved. Today he still has some issues with peripheral vision, he lost his sense of smell and has problems with short-term memory, which means Patti will always be his caregiver.But first and foremost, she is his wife."There's an Ed Sheeran song," she said. "It's called 'Perfect' and that's what Kevin is to me. I've never seen his injury. I've never seen anything different with him. He's always looks like the day he spun me around in Denver. That's still him."Their love gave Kevin hope and it gave Patti strength. But to this day there is one thing Patti misses, which other married couples enjoy."I think what makes me the saddest is we don't celebrate our anniversary," she said. "… he got hurt on May 3, on our wedding anniversary. So, we don't celebrate it. We don't talk about it."Someday that might change. She has the dream of one day having another wedding day, renewing their vows and from that day forward they can celebrate."We will do it one day, when the time is right," she said.Meanwhile she will just keep dreaming and pinning wedding ideas and photos on her Pinterest board.Second caregiver role
As she fell into a routine of a new normal, her mother moved to Junction City from Colorado. That was in 2011 and Patti said they had about five good years."Life was good for everybody," she said. "And then she started to develop dementia and I became her full-time caregiver as well."Fortunately, Kevin had been getting progressively better by that time, but she was still a caregiver to him as well. For two years, Patti watched as the dementia took over her mother's mind. In February, her mother passed.Helping others
When plans change and life is turned upside down, the caregivers are on the frontlines.
"The caregivers are the ones that need to be recognized because of what they've gone through and what they do on a day-to-day basis," Kevin said.He hopes the work Patti is doing will help other caregivers realize they are not alone.
"I hope they can see that there's other people out there like them," he said. "There's other people out there to help them and never give up."Patti can tell them about the importance of caring for themselves, but she knows many won't listen. She didn't either until she had her wake-up call.She understands what guides the caregivers and why they often don't take time for themselves.
"You're afraid you're going to let them down," she said. "You're afraid you're going to miss something. You're afraid that you're not in control because you have no control. But you have to understand that it's OK to not be in control of what you can't control; that your love is more important than anything."With the support of the fellowship behind her, she hopes she can get the message out to more people. Whether they are caregivers to a spouse, a wounded Soldier, a child, a parent or anyone, she wants them to know how vital it is for them to take time for themselves.Her passion for sharing the message and determination to create a solid foundation for caregivers to garner support from, for years to come, is rooted in the day she fell to her knees and prayed to God.
"I made a promise," she said.