Self-medication, primarily with whiskey, was Tom Smith’s remedy for the long list of ailments after his last deployment—migraine headaches, nerve damage, spinal injuries, memory loss, hyper-vigilance, flashbacks and night terrors among them. Tom served in both the Marines and the Army a total of 23 years. Multiple blasts during combat in Iraq in 2004 had caused a traumatic brain injury, but he didn’t learn that or receive the PTSD diagnosis until Steff entered his life four years later.
Tom credits Steff’s tenacity and resolve—she fought both his destructive inclinations and a chain of command unresponsive to his conditions—for pulling him up from rock bottom in his military career and personal life. It was nothing for him to down a bottle of Jack Daniels a day, and his memory loss, related to the brain injury, caused problems at his job in garrison, yet he wasn’t receiving any treatment. Steff spent night after night studying the Uniform Code of Military Justice to protest the misguided efforts of Tom’s superiors to dismiss him, despite the medical documentation of his injury. She learned as much as she could online about PTSD, eventually got a referral for a counselor, and by December 2008 Tom was officially diagnosed with the disorder. It was another year before he could go through the Medical Evaluation Board to become medically retired, which happened then only because of Steff’s sheer persistence; she lobbied the Senate Armed Services Committee, brought Tom’s personal doctor on base to verify his need for medication, intervention and hospitalization, and managed to get the support of both the Army vice chief of staff and the base commander.
With Tom medically retired, Steff concentrates her energies on being her husband’s full-time caregiver and raising their three children. Because of his PTSD and wariness of strangers, Steff doesn’t like to leave him alone for more than an hour. His injuries are so varied, each day may range from helping him bathe and dress to monitoring for escalating symptoms of psychiatric stress—there have been two attempts at suicide in the past, though Tom’s memory loss dulls his recollection.
Just as having a father who was an Air force veteran of the Vietnam War prepared her for helping Tom with the ramifications of military service, her experiences as Tom’s caregiver prepared her to advocate on behalf of other military and veteran caregivers as a Dole Caregiver Fellow. While she wishes that someone had been there to guide her through all the challenges, as a Fellow, she now has a platform from which she can share the hard-earned knowledge she’s gained with caregivers facing similar struggles.