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An Ongoing Battle

Liz was born and raised in Manchester, CT. She and Perry, an Army Veteran, have been married since 1996, and they have three amazing kids. Liz is currently going to school for Addiction and Recovery Services in hopes of helping others through her own life experiences. She is also the co-founder of Operation: Purpose, a non-profit for veterans and their families.

I met my husband in 1995 in Fayetteville, NC while he was stationed at Fort Bragg.

I grew up in New England and had a pretty large family. Family get-togethers were cherished and created incredible bonds. Lots of cousins to spend weekends with and a best friend I had met when we were five. Being an only child I embraced these relationships. I spent my teenage years involved in Tae Kwon Do and spent a lot of time with my TKD family at competitions and socially. I blew out my knee getting ready for the nationals and couldn’t train anymore. I started getting into things I shouldn’t and my parents were on the verge of a divorce. So I moved to North Carolina.

He came from a religious home where his adopted parents put all their focus. He never fit in there and was often punished for his adventurous spirit and appetite for discovery. He was getting into things he shouldn’t and found himself at a crossroads: continue on a self-destructive path or serve a greater cause. The military was his choice.

We met at the Flaming Mug on nickel beer night. I saw him with his friends, dancing and being silly to a Cypress Hill song. I told a mutual friend that I wanted to meet him! He was charming with an incredible smile that showed in his eyes. Once we were introduced we chatted about ourselves, tattoos, and guns as I was working as a security guard. He would come visit me when I worked night shifts. We would sit and talk until my shift was over and he had just enough time to get to morning formation. He was passionate, hot headed, and creative…we fell in love.

We moved in together, got engaged, and were married all in a year. He was 21, and I was 26. After some time, he got out of the Army, and we moved to his hometown. We had a lot of growing up to do and some pretty big demons to let go of, but we did what we thought we needed to do, or what society deemed logical. We both maintained full time jobs. We pursued the American dream and ended up buying a home.

His physical problems started to show up quickly after his ETS. He had sustained a parachute accident before we met where he burned in and lost consciousness. He had awoken in the dark, hurt and with no one nearby. His kevlar and gear was broken from the impact, but he somehow got to his feet and rucked to his platoon. His “worse for wear” condition was discovered the next morning but he never received any proper medical attention. As a result, he required a spinal fusion in 2005 for a broken vertebrae.

Chronic back pain and neuropathy were now his norm. Depression was always present, but because of his pain, it was becoming more visible. As a man, husband, and now father, his purpose was to be a protector and provider. He felt responsible for these duties regardless of his pain levels. Looking back, I think we could’ve handled things differently. It was a lot of appointments, meds, and frustration.

After several years, we decided to move to Connecticut, where I was from. These were difficult years, some of the toughest in our marriage. He was having migraines, panic attacks, increased depression, horrible neuropathy and pain. The docs had him maxed out on gabapentin which caused a whole host of other problems. He was out of his head, existing in a fog and has even lost segments of this time frame permanently. He decided to stop taking his meds, without talking to me and without tapering off them. THIS had the worst effect on him. His spiral became a nose dive. He still hadn’t signed up with the VA, so these were all civilian docs that weren’t capable of giving him a proper diagnosis. We were living with family, I didn’t know what was going on, and we had a little girl. He tried to run away at one point but got in a car accident and came home. Once we had him checked out in the ER, he had a follow-up with their pain management team. Thankfully, his doctor was tied in with Walter Reed and diagnosed him with a TBI. We still had issues, but we went to counseling, and scraped and saved and got our own apartment, but he didn’t know how to cope with Connecticut or with life. I didn’t know how to cope. We drank too much and that ALWAYS escalated arguments. We weren’t happy, the cost of living was high, and those New England winters sucked the life out of us. So, we talked about moving back south. Then, SURPRISE I found out I was pregnant!

It took some time for things to level back out, and I had to let him “just be” for a while, and I continued to work on myself. We moved back to North Carolina two months after our second child was born. He had a good job lined up, and I stayed home for a couple months with the girls. I found a local pharmacy job and worked there for maybe eight months until physically I could not handle it anymore because I was pregnant AGAIN. I was 41 and 43 when I had our second and third children. Our third and last was a boy. My pay at that point would cover daycare, so it seemed like a no-brainer to stay at home after having him. We had made a final car payment which freed up some money, and we made it work. My husband worked hard and excelled at everything he did there, but he was having neck pain and nerve issues. We found out he also needed a fusion there as well. Once he recovered and returned to work he was promoted to Production Manager and it wasn’t long before he started to feel the stress.

He started having panic attacks on his way to work and he would obsess about if the shop was locked or if the employees were running jobs correctly to the point he would drive to work in the middle of the night to make sure. He would go in early and come home late, working six days a week. In addition to his growing issues with his job, we began to experience tremendous loss. Family members, grandparents, impactful family friends, mentors. It was unreal. Our oldest daughter started getting depressed from all the loss as well. We were always waiting for the next call. His moods, panic attacks and chronic pain were affecting him regularly. I was finally able to talk him into going to the VA. It was an ordeal, of course, but I went with him. We thought it was for the initial interview and physical exam but it was actually a 3 plus hour psych eval. He looked like he had been beaten up after that. Emotionally and physically exhausted. He got his first rating shortly after that. Okay, maybe he can back off of work a little but he didn’t, he felt responsible.

He would rant about work, the VA tried him on some antidepressants but he just couldn’t tolerate them. He would get angry or suicidal. He stopped taking meds and drank beer instead. Now we’ve always been beer drinkers, loved going to a good brewery and one opened up down the road from us shortly after my Dad retired down here. We drank a lot. It was fun. It was an escape. It was a temporary pain reliever but it caused a lot of problems. So many more problems than we needed.

My father had been dealing with liposarcomas for several years at this point. These tumors would come back in different spots in his pelvis and abdomen. He had surgeries, radiation and we thought he was doing okay until he wasn’t. My husband and I were his caregivers through it all. 2019 brought us back to Duke Hospital with Dad. We packed up the whole family and took turns being at the hospital with him after his surgery. The doctor wasn’t happy at all with what he found. Post radiation and it seemed his insides were mush, no clear borders, he did the best he could. His recovery was slow, painful and brought us back to Duke several times until Dad couldn’t make the trip anymore. He had severe abdominal pain, swelling in his legs and feet and it became obvious this was not an infection, it was the cancer spreading. He was at his apartment for a while with our assistance trying to keep his pain under control, finally agreeing for Hospice to come in and eventually having to go to the Hospice facility because we could not keep his pain under control. Dad was there for almost 2 weeks. We were there with him every day and night except for one when the nurse told us to go be with family, eat, breathe and they’d call if needed. October 17, 2019 my father died. It hit harder than anything I’ve ever experienced. It hit my husband just as hard, as they were like best friends. The grief spiral began.

One day I found my husband sitting at the foot of the bed, overcome with emotions that he could not explain. I called a veteran friend who came and talked with him. He had felt like he wanted to be alone and didn’t need anyone but that was slowly shifting especially in the year to come.

We drank often. Cheers to Dad, sitting on the porch he loved to spend time on when he would visit. Our oldest was having a very hard time, having panic attacks at school and grieving hard for her grandfather. They were very close. She tried online school for a while until she felt she could go back to school. Two weeks later they shut schools down for COVID.

My husband took leave from his job. It was too much and he was losing control of his anger. We made the house our place since we couldn’t go anywhere. Lots of outdoor fun for the kids and my husband rebuilt the back deck with his father and birth father, which was an interesting social experiment my husband arranged.

My husband’s birth father came back a couple weeks later to help him finish the build and celebrate Father’s Day together. It was awesome. It was our place to be together, games with the kids and summer fires. We really missed my Dad. The grief was palpable so we drank more.

Once the deck was finished my husband was recruited for a management position at another company. My husband needed to feel like he was contributing so he jumped right back into work. We soon realized my husband’s anxiety was fueled by the stressors of work. We requested a reevaluation from the VA. They concluded he was not able to continue working a regular job. They finally got him linked up through community care for therapy, pain management, massage therapy, acupuncture and PT.

It took FOREVER to get these all in place. It is a part time job keeping up with appointments, authorizations and referrals. I need you to know this. It’s no wonder our veterans lose hope with the amount of hoops the VA requires them to jump through. It’s as if they want you to lose hope and quit trying.

We stopped drinking in the early summer of 2021 on a trip to CT to finally have a celebration of life for my dad. We also attended a memorial weekend for my cousin’s 22 year old son that died from a tragic accident. We needed to be present. We needed to help our children process the loss of the patriarch of our family and a tremendous young man who was taken before his time. On our return my husband decided it was time to retrieve one of his best friends ashes from Minnesota who had died by suicide 10 years prior. My husband was never mentally ready until now. He had his own issues, struggles, and thoughts of suicide. This trip quickly evolved during the winter of 2021 and he realized there were other veterans struggling. They needed to be checked on.

The Ride for Light grew and became a national outreach to bring attention to the need for buddy checks, showcasing how we need to support one another in an effort to eliminate veteran suicide.

He set off in May of 2022 dedicated to seeing as many veterans as possible, across 48 states pushing for 15,000 miles. Speaking to his birth father frequently while on the road, he had no idea what was about to happen. On July 9th, while taking a break from his trip, his birth father committed suicide. The week that followed was an emotional blur. We had an awkward celebration of life in the same yard he ended his life and my husband flew back out to Minnesota to continue his trip the next day. In his final stop before returning home, his uncle met him and rode the final leg with him in his birth father’s place.

My husband’s mind became his biggest enemy. Two months later he lost his half sister to drug addiction.

This man is going crazy trying to find some peace within. These tragedies are occurring, making him question everything about himself. Life is still a fight. This is such a condensed version of our story. The struggle with chronic pain and mental health issues has become our why: Why we created Operation: Purpose. Our veterans AND their families need, require and deserve support, compassion, and love.

The VA is incapable of providing this so we decided to start a movement. A movement where we support each other.

I, as a disabled Army veteran wife, need support.

Untreated brain injuries can cause seizures, sleep disorders, neurodegenerative diseases, neuroendocrine dysregulation, and psychiatric problems. And that is just one part of what my husband lives with.

We know because we continue to live this.
It is hard on us all.

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