While the pandemic persists, injured service members, veterans and their caregivers face isolation and feelings of depression. Prior to 2020, social isolation was identified as a critical issue among wounded military and veteran caregivers. This study is what prompted the creation of the American Red Cross Military and Veteran Caregiver Network (MVCN). This network offers peer-based support and services to those providing care to wounded, ill or aging service members and veterans.
A NETWORK OF SUPPORT
Today, the need for connectedness is crucial for this community. COVID-19 has isolated injured veteran and military families from their outside network. Since the onset of the coronavirus in the United States in March of 2020, the MVCN’s online caregiver community has more than doubled in size. Today, there are over 7,000 active participants who connect, engage, learn and train online. Ever-expanding, the MVCN also opened its online doors to a new group – caregivers who are veterans. Together, caregivers of all different backgrounds are connecting through a secure supportive network that is accessible without having to leave home.
JENN PAULSON: “MY CUP IS FILLED”
Jenn Paulson is an Elizabeth Dole fellow, a caregiver to her wounded Iraq combat veteran husband, Keith. In 2020, Jenn also adopted four of her grandkids. As a Red Cross volunteer through the MVCN, she’s passionate about empowering other caregivers.
“After my husband’s deployment to Iraq he was driving in our town when weather sirens went off and he said it sounded just like incoming mortar sirens in Iraq. He ran out of his car, jumped in the ditch and called me, saying, ‘They’re bombing us, you need to get safe.’ He thought he was back in Iraq and was warning me. It was then I knew, everything had changed.” That is when Paulson knew they needed to get help.
She shared that over the last year caregivers have been hit hard. “COVID-19 is really bringing the needs of family caregivers to light. We’re having to take care of our wounded vets, teach kids and manage the household. We’ve been living in this state for so long now with no end in sight. Hope is all we have. People are really isolated and feel like they really need to connect, and they want to do it any way possible. In fact, no one had ever asked me about how I’m taking care of myself until recently.”
Through the MVCN, Paulson connects with other caregivers and leads online groups as a trained facilitator. “Just being a part of this caregiver community, I’ve seen so much growth. Every caregiver’s situation is different -- you can be in a city or in the country, young or old and still be isolated.
Caregiving is so hard and if I had to do it alone, I don’t think I could do it. As a leader, my cup is filled by making other people happy, by being able to bring joy and hope to others."
MELISSA ALLEN: “THIS NETWORK GROWS WITH US”
Melissa Allen is a mother of two, a military spouse and the daughter of a Gulf War veteran. As she puts it, “I’m military for life.” After her husband’s return from his first deployment to Iraq, she noticed, “This was not the man I married. I didn’t know who he was.” But she kept it to herself. Finally, after his return from the second deployment to Iraq, it was undeniable. He was physically injured and suffered from severe night terrors. “To this day, we cannot still sleep together in the same bed because the night terrors persist. That is something that has never alleviated. Everyone thinks that when they come back to the U.S. these terrors will go away. But he is never going to be 100% again.”
Today, Allen is the primary caregiver for her injured veteran husband. “The biggest thing people don’t realize is that family caregivers are 24/7. The need for care is constant. I’m fighting for my husband, working full-time as a teaching assistant and am a full-time mom.”
Unfortunately, in July, the unthinkable happened: she contracted the coronavirus., “I started feeling stomach problems, then congestion in my nose. That morning I had my coffee and it smelled and tasted great and by that afternoon my sense of taste and smell were gone.” Allen tested positive for COVID-19. As a caregiver, this was a striking blow for her entire family. “I was so worried about my family. I went into protection mode. I still needed to provide care for my family but had to do everything in my power to safeguard them as well.”
As a member of the MVCN, Allen found a network of support through her caregiver peers. “When I messaged our caregiver network that I had COVID-19, everyone reached out to me across the country and said, ‘What do you need? How can I help?’ To be honest, I was at such a low point in my life. I had moments where I felt like I didn’t want to live anymore. I wasn’t enough to help my family, or so I thought.”
Today, Allen no longer tests positive for COVID-19, but unfortunately, she still has some post-COVID-19 symptoms. Through it all, she shares that the MVCN offered her the emotional support and the caregiver resources she needed. “I tear up every time I think about the Red Cross. It has led me to so many amazing caregiver friendships. Yes, I’m resourceful but I would have never been able to get all of the information I needed. The Red Cross is the nucleus of caregiver support knowledge for me. Our needs as caregivers evolve and this network grows with us – they always offer support.”
CONNECT WITH THE MVCN
If you or someone you know would like to join the MVCN’s online community or train to become a peer supporter, please visit redcross.org/caregivers or download the Red Cross Hero Care app and click on the Caregiver Support tile.