Vail Veterans Program helps heroic caregivers learn they’re not alone
The Vail Veterans Program is supported by donors, corporate sponsors and volunteers. That allows all programs to be free for veterans and their families. For more information about the Vail Veterans Program, including how to donate and/or volunteer, visit vailveteransprogram.org or call 970-476-4906.
VAIL — Because it takes one to know one, the women at this week’s Vail Veterans Program’s caregivers conference were best friends before they even met.
Twenty-eight women are in town — all caregivers for combat veterans who were injured in Iraq or Afghanistan. Just as heroic as those soldiers are the people who take care of them.
Their stories are as different as they are, yet they have so much in common.
One set of stories
Elizabeth Jacks was 19 years old when she married Ryan Jacks. He was a Marine when she met him on a blind date as a high school senior. They dated seven months and married on Nov. 10, 1995, the U.S. Marine Corps birthday.
He did two deployments in Iraq, 2003 and 2005. He was hit early and often in about every explosion you can imagine. He’s diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
“We have good days and bad days,” Elizabeth Jacks said.
Ryan Jacks is infantry, so he’s consistently training. He was a drill instructor at Paris Island, then Afghanistan twice. He was serving his country, usually somewhere else.
Ryan Jacks is retiring after 21 years, which is another adjustment. They’re building a house on a lake.
Elizabeth Jacks is a caregiver in three ways: She looks after Ryan Jacks, she’s a mother and she’s a nurse. Her son is 21 years old and just returned from Afghanistan last week, landing at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs. Their daughter is 12. She’s named Cadence because, well, her dad’s a drill instructor.
“Caregiving is just part of me,” she said.
The caregivers conference helps them learn resilience to deal with the small, everyday stresses we all face. It also teaches them to deal with the unexpected.
“Every day is something different,” Elizabeth Jacks said.
The wives and caregivers share all kinds of coping ideas, ranging from meditation and a quiet walk in the woods to a Nerf gunfight.
And even though they sometimes feel overwhelmed, they learned this week that they’re not alone.
“I’m not the only one who deals with this,” Elizabeth Jacks said.
Their husbands’ injuries differ, but many of their caregivers’ issues are the same.
Then there are the government agencies.
“Dealing with the VA is always the top of our lists,” Elizabeth Jacks said.
She’s a nurse, so she notices every detail and is passionate about them all — occasionally to her husband’s chagrin, she said.
“I’m an immigrant from Poland, and I know what this nation has done for me and my family. I’m all for our veterans and defending their rights. They should be getting the best care,” Elizabeth Jacks said.
Her father was one of the leaders of Poland’s Solidarity movement of the 1980s, the first trade union in a Warsaw Pact country not controlled by the Soviets. That trade union helped force the Soviets’ ouster from Poland and collapse the Soviet Union. Her father escaped Poland and fled to Austria for a few months. He was sponsored by a Polish-American man in Florida to help run the man’s factory and immigrated.
Her mom was doing all she could to send the children out of Poland with their father. It was three years before her mother and the children could get out, joining him in Florida.
We’re in this together
Caregivers tend to give away everything to others, and let themselves go.
Like all of us, they need their people around them.
For many of these women, this week in Vail was their first time away from their families since their husbands were wounded in combat. Some were a little unsure about the trip. Getting away for even a few hours can be both wonderful and terrible.
Some husbands pushed their caregivers to come to Vail. Others were reluctant and a little insecure.
Like the caregivers themselves, they’ll be fine because they’re in this together.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.