Vail Veterans Program unites caregivers of injured combat vets
VAIL — Imagine walking into a room with two dozen best friends whom you’ve just met.
That’s life this week for a Vail Veterans Program Caregivers Reunion — 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, beginning with noble and towering sacrifice.
Love won’t wait
Pamela Frustaglio, for example, was engaged to a Marine deployed to the Middle East. An improvised explosive device injured him and seven others with one blast. He lost both legs above the knee. He also suffered a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But they were engaged to be married and had plans that wouldn’t wait. He’s a Marine to his very marrow, she’s a force of nature and they steadfastly refused to move their wedding date … nine months after he was hit. They didn’t have to. Frustaglio was a resplendent bride. After they said “I do,” he walked her back up the aisle, as he had promised.
Let’s backtrack to the day he was hit, a call every caregiver has received.
Frustaglio was in Portland, Oregon, living her life and waiting for him to come home. She was in a gym working out with a friend when, at about 9 p.m., her cell phone rang. She was never without it after he deployed. It was his parents calling at around midnight their time.
“I knew. As soon as I saw them pop up on the caller ID, I knew,” she said.
She took her friend’s hand and they sat together on a weight bench. Frustaglio thought to ask how her husband’s head was. As people often do when receiving news like this, his parents forgot to ask.
Humor is an excellent coping mechanism and his head, it turns out, is still attached. Her friends at this week’s Caregivers Reunion joke that their husbands are guys, so while their husbands’ heads are attached, whether they’re using them is a different question.
Life’s challenges and so much more
Everyone has challenges as we make our way through day-to-day life. These Caregivers’ lives are complicated further by caring for their families, plus a spouse who consumes attention and is injured at so many levels, plus the stress all of that causes.
“It can be isolating,” Frustaglio said.
Like all of us, they need their people around them.
First and foremost, the Vail Veterans Program’s caregivers retreats show them they’re not alone. Others are going through the same things.
A few years back, there was a group of eight caregivers whose husbands were hit by the same IED. They didn’t know each other all that well. Now they do.
“You feel like you’ve refound yourself,” Frustaglio said. “It’s such a gift.”
Their friends come with them
The caregivers share all kinds of coping ideas, ranging from meditation and a quiet walk in the woods to a Nerf gunfight.
While they’re in town they spend their mornings working through personal training that teaches them that they cannot change their external demands. We all have them. They have more of them.
They can change the way they react to them and how they handle the stress the demands create.
In between they have enough fun all the time and too much fun in spots: Spa treatments, snowmobiling, bowling, skiing. Frustaglio is from the upper Midwest and it didn’t take much muscle memory to remember how to crack open a snowmobile’s throttle.
“That was so much fun,” she said.
This is Frustaglio’s second caregivers retreat. When they were gathered for the final time during that first one, they were asked to describe their experience in one word.
“Serenity,” she said.
Like all families, life cycles happen to families of injured veterans.
“Sometimes things are going along wonderfully, and sometimes something happens and the bottom falls out,” Frustaglio said. “That’s life.”
That’s when she and the other caregivers hark back to the retreat’s lessons in resilience, serenity and lifetime friends and support.
“When we leave we take our friends with us,” she said.
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