ARLINGTON, Va. — When a Soldier suffers a catastrophic injury, it’s not just their life that turns on its head. The loved one who cares for that Soldier also has their life disrupted — and it can be a lonely feeling.
Fortunately, that’s not how it has to be thanks to a caregiver program Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
Linda Rasnake, the family readiness support assistant at Walter Reed, knows all about how tough it is to be a caregiver. When her husband was injured in 2006, she had to uproot from Arizona to the Washington, D.C. area and immediately felt like a fish out of water.
It was that experience that caused her to create the family support program, which helps others plucked from their lives because of a duty toward a loved one who suffered an injury as a Soldier.
"I just wanted to build something for the caregivers who are coming in and are scared because they don't know the outcome of their service member and they don't know what's going on," she said. "Most of them don't come from this area. They come from a lot of small towns, and for the caregivers and non-medical attendants to make it through this obstacle, they have to have the support of each other and others they can depend on."
Rasnake notes that the military does a great job as a whole supporting caregivers, but there are other needs beyond what the Army is equipped to provide, and that's where people like Rasnake come in.
"We have a network of other caregivers, which I've built over 14 years, and we have a monthly get-together where we can have fun," she said.
This network provides people who have experienced walking away from a home, a job, or even children to care for a loved one with a safe place. That's critical for family members who come not just from the United States but also abroad. Rasnake noted that she recently had a wounded warrior call from Italy who wanted to know what to expect there, and she was able to provide them with a handbook she created that walks them through the process and helps the caregiver feel more comfortable.
"I was someone they had already communicated with, and as a result they are able to navigate around things a little bit easier," she said. "They got an apartment right away. It was just an easier transition for them."
Caregivers constantly face challenges in this phase in their lives, but Rasnake is always thinking of how to improve circumstances. She thinks figuring out a way to alleviate some of their financial problems is a critical next step for the program. For example, a school teacher has to consider whether it's better to uproot and come to Walter Reed to care for that loved one, or if the job and income are more important. Rasnake doesn't think they should have to choose.
"If I had one wish, it would be that local communities would tap into part-time help from our caregivers while they are at the different locations, because there are some amazing people here," she said.
Sometimes, it's the little things that nobody thinks about until they arrive at Walter Reed that matter most. The caregiver might come from California in shorts and flip flops, and get caught off guard by 30-degree weather. Rasnake's caregiver group has a lending closet and donors who provide those essentials. That way, caregivers can focus on what they're here to do: make that recovering Soldier's life a little easier and more comfortable.
The caregiver community is so strong that some will come back and help a Soldier they don't even know, Rasnake said.
COVID-19 has made things a challenge, but Rasnake has found ways around it. Lately, she's organized a photo contest, and will display some of the entries on posters. She also started a grab-and-go lunch activity to help build morale, where different restaurants provide lunches. They've even included some karaoke with it.