By Anne Harding
'While I took care of my husband, the Wounded Warrior Wives community took care of me.'
—Cheryl Gansner, 29, Knoxville, Tenn.
'Six weeks before my husband, Bryan, was due to end his second tour of duty in Iraq in 2006, his platoon ran over an improvised explosive device. The blast shattered his heels and ripped open his leg from groin to toe. His multiple injuries have changed both our lives forever.
Bryan spent the next 20 months in Washington, D.C., at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center between reconstructive surgeries and rehab. I quit my job, sold our house and moved to D.C. to take care of him full time. I became his nurse and his guardian, washing his wounds, changing the sheets and fighting red tape to make sure all his care was covered.
To keep up with all the calls and e-mail about his recovery, I started a blog (wifeofawoundedsoldier.com), where I posted updates and wrote about the emotional wounds Bryan suffered. He'd had traumatic brain injury (TBI), and it became clear that he also had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—he often had nightmares and trouble sleeping, was terrified of loud noises and would have angry outbursts. I wanted to help, but he was depressed and shut me out. I couldn't reach him. My role was to be totally supportive, but I was also angry, and we fought a lot.
After Bryan got out of the hospital, we moved to Tennessee, where we both got jobs, but our relationship didn't get any better. During that time, I found the forum run by Operation Homefront's Wounded Warrior Wives program—where female caretakers basically vent to each other about what they're going through. It was such a relief to read other people's stories. It helped me feel like I wasn't crazy. Through the program, I met my best friend, who also had a husband with PTSD. Instant-messaging each other about what our husbands did that day and the crazy ups and downs of our lives helped us get through some of our hardest times. Then the Wounded Warrior Project sent a bunch of us on a retreat in Nashville. We were pampered with massages and facials, and we all simply hung out together and talked with the counselors provided. It was the first time anybody had treated us like we, the caregivers, were warriors in our own right. It also sealed some of the best friendships I have to this day. I did worry about Bryan being on his own, but that weekend recharged me and made me realize that no matter what was going on with Bryan, I needed to take care of myself, too. And part of doing that was to be involved with the Wounded Warrior Wives community.
Around that time, I turned my blog into a journal of what I was going through. Knowing that the truth was helping others made me turn off my filter and just tell it like it is. And although things were rough for us, Bryan and I persevered. I took my vows seriously, and every time I saw a glimpse of the sweetheart I knew Bryan to be, it gave me something to hold on to.
One of the wives I met told me about hyperbaric oxygen therapy, an experimental treatment that improved her husband's symptoms (he had TBI, too). We were able to locate a clinical trial, and the treatments completely helped Bryan. For the first time since his accident, he felt hopeful and the two of us were able to connect. I heard his laugh and saw him smile, and the difference was dramatic. His memory got better, and he was less jumpy. The PTSD still surfaces—he is not cured—but during the past couple of years we have been managing so much better in our relationship. Because our insurance won't pay for the treatment, we won't be able to afford it again, however, and unfortunately the positive effects are not permanent.
These days, Bryan and I are enjoying the time we have together. Bryan is planning to teach monoskiing to other wounded vets to help them become active again, and I now manage the Wounded Warrior Wives forums and organize retreats for the wives. I also offer one-on-one support—I know how it feels to be at the end of your rope, and it's good to be on the giving end. There's nothing better than being there for the heroes who sacrificed so much—and for their wives, who have endured their own pain. It's so gratifying to help them enjoy life and laugh with their friends when they need it the most.'