by Terry Rogers
Colleen Johnson would rather there not be a need for an organization like the Elizabeth Dole Foundation or for military caregivers because that would mean American warriors were not sustaining wounds, injuries and illnesses that required such a need. As a Dole Caregiver Fellow, Johnson strengthens and empowers military caregivers and families by raising public awareness, driving research, championing policy and leading collaborations that make an impact on their lives.
“Dole Caregiver Fellows are the heart and sole of the Foundation,” Johnson explained. “We are military caregivers, carefully selected each year from across to the country to represent the Foundation. A military caregiver is a family member, friend or acquaintance who provides a broad range of care and assistance for, or manages the care of, a current or former military service member with a disabling physical or mental injury or illness. Although significant attention has been paid to service members and veterans with service-related injuries and associated conditions, little is known about the needs of their caregivers or the resources that exist to meet them.”
The Elizabeth Dole Foundation was founded by Senator Elizabeth Dole in 2012. It is the preeminent organization empowering, supporting and honoring the nation’s 5.5 million military caregivers. The Foundation adopts a comprehensive approach in its advocacy, working with leaders in the public, private, nonprofit and faith communities to recognize military caregivers’ service and promote their well-being.
Johnson calls herself a “possibilitarian, lifelong learner, wife of an Army Warrant Officer, mother to three amazing young adult men, and head wrangler to two wonderful rescue animals, Zeus, a chocolate Miniature Pinscher and Alsan, an aloof, white short hair cat.” She has lived in Maryland, Australia, the United Kingdom, Virginia and has lived in Delaware since 2005. This month, Johnson graduated with an undergraduate degree in Sociology and starts her Master’s in Social Justice and Community Organizing. Her thesis work will support the community of wounded warriors and military caregivers.
“I am a military caregiver to my wounded warrior husband who has visible and invisible injuries from his pre- and post-9/11 service with multiple deployments to include Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Panama, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom as well as activations in support of the State of Delaware and our nation,” Johnson said. “Upon returning from Afghanistan in 2014, my husband sustained injuries and illnesses that needed the support of the military, the Veterans Administration and a caregiver. After a 2017 activation with the Delaware National Guard in support of the hurricane season, he returned from the activation with an exacerbation of his injuries which has significantly changed his military and civilian life and our entire family’s life.” Johnson says her husband suffers from Post Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Johnson is the balancer and advocate in her family, the one who helps her husband deal 24/7 aftereffects of war. She is an active member of the multidisciplinary team that guides and empowers her husband to live a fulfilling life. Johnson attends all the appointments, meetings and participates in the conversations, advocating for the best care and treatment for her husband.
“Being a military caregiver is much to do about standing,” Johnson said. “Standing as an advocate for his continued care and opportunities to help him flourish in his abilities. Standing to educate and support my veteran to help him be the best version of himself. Standing to innovations in care, in perspectives, in opportunities for ourselves and our community. Standing with my family, our community, leaders and officials to meet our nation’s veterans and their caregivers as equals. Standing with other caregivers who are the Hidden Heroes of our nation, as an immensely proud member of the group. And, as always, standing by my veteran when no one is around to see – loving him and walking together in learning new ways to live our fabulous life.”
Johnson explains that she has stood in awe of her husband’s service as a National Guardsman, watching as he combined his military and civilian commitments seamlessly. She applauds his civilian employer, Booz Allen Hamilton for their support of her husband after his wounds, injuries and illnesses. She does not believe the Delaware National Guard has been as supportive of her husband since he developed his injuries, illnesses and wounds, something she says is unacceptable. She hopes to now use her service as an Elizabeth Dole Foundation Fellow to help them become more action-oriented and able to meet challenges.
In addition, as part of her Fellowship, Johnson is active in Delaware’s community of military caregivers. She is also a member of Milford Lifecycle’s Scorchers Cycling Group as well as a Peer volunteer with the American Red Cross’ Military and Veteran Caregiver Network.
“I am well supported by a team of family, friends and supporters who help and guide me through my life and military caregiving,” Johnson said. “My goal for 2019 is to engage the State of Delaware and all our cities and towns in the Hidden Heroes Cities program. Wouldn’t’ it be fabulous if Milford became Delaware’s first Hidden Heroes City? The struggle with military caregivers is that an individual can be in the role for days, weeks, months and even years without formal recognition. If there are any readers who are a family member, friend or acquaintance who provides a broad range of care and assistance for, or manages the care of, a current or former military service member with a disabling physical or mental injury or illness, you are not alone. Please go to https://hiddenheroes.org/ to register, find resources and a community of support.”
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