Despite having been in a several plane crashes – one involving a dramatic rescue – and working in a hangar that had a burn pit for fuel, Tommy Neal didn’t see himself as a “real” soldier who deserved help.
“It manifests with [gastroesophageal reflux disease] GERD and sleep apnea and some other stuff, and those are things that when you get to your 40s, you think you’re just getting old,” Natalie Cobb, a 2022 Elizabeth Dole Foundation Caregiver Fellow, said of her partner, who joined the Army Reserve after four years in the Air Force.
Emotional trauma effected his memory, not only impeding his medical treatment but success in the office jobs he was drawn to after he felt too worn out to continue as a helicopter flight engineer.
Cobb, of Columbia, South Carolina, said the chance to advocate for other nontraditional caregivers is one of the reasons she applied to the Elizabeth Dole Foundation Caregiver Fellows program. She’s among the 11 fellows recently named in the 2022 class who will receive training to share their stories with lawmakers and decision makers in the business, faith, entertainment and nonprofit communities, according to a press release.
Cobb has difficulty helping her partner, Neal, get the assistance he needs because he can’t always remember important details related to his care and she only has access to so much information since they aren’t married.
Luckily, she’s not only a fan of spreadsheets, calendars and lists, but she watched her mother take care of her grandfather, who retired from the Army as a master sergeant. Since Neal and she didn’t meet until after he was out of the reserves, Cobb said she asks a lot of questions when they hang out with his military buddies to learn more of his history.
They keep logs of triggering events, and what helped, so he can give accurate accounts during appointments. They carefully considered Neal’s strengths and found him a job as a veteran career coordinator, using his compassion and intelligence to help other veterans who are struggling.
Still, Cobb hopes to use her platform as a fellow to promote the Elizabeth Dole Act – which would help caregivers better navigate government systems and advocate for their veterans – and speak for those taking care of veterans who can’t be a partner in their care.
“Some of the stories from the other fellows are heart wrenching,” she said.
Jim Clark, of Edmond, Oklahoma, also would like to see the Elizabeth Dole Act pass, but mostly because it would help more caregivers get aid from VA. Nearly 90% of caregivers were at risk of dismissal from the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers based on updated eligibility assessments.
“That program has been a real blessing,” said Clark, another 2022 Elizabeth Dole Foundation Caregiver fellow.
His stepson, Joe Collins, seemed fine when he came home from Iraq in 2004 – He had a great job as an auto mechanic for the Army Reserve and bought a house. But then his mother, Cynde Collins-Clark, got a call from his boss – Collins hadn’t shown up for work for three days.
“She went in the house, it was 100 degrees. The air conditioner had broken, and he was laying in the closet on the floor,” Clark said.
Clark and Collins-Clark moved Collins into their home and tried to get him help. Collins became addicted to a psychiatric medication, which led to expensive legal fees and rehab. For three years, he didn’t leave his room. On top of the mental and emotional difficulties, he had lymphedema and had lost his teeth.
“He was 19 when he came home,” Clark said. “He missed all those years of courting, thinking about marriage and family.”
His behavior was too erratic to leave alone for more than a few hours. But they finally found support through the Dole Foundation, VA and Wounded Warrior Project.
Collins-Clark was a 2018 Dole Caregiver Fellow and in 2006 founded Veterans Families United (VFU), a nonprofit that walks families through the process of getting help. Collins, Clark and Cynde share their story and promote VFU at the Oklahoma National Guard’s Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program events. Now, Joe receives disability pay, has dental implants and is studying photography. He’s made great friends at Travis Mills Foundation retreats.
“He’s 38,” Clark said. “He’s got time to figure things out.”
The other 2022 Dole Caregiver Fellows are:
- Kirsten Laha-Walsh – Coaling, Alabama
- Julie Guleff – Port Orange, Florida
- Daphne Grady – Baton Rouge, Louisiana
- Wendy Gavell – Keedysville, Maryland
- Elisa Glass – Slate Hill, New York
- Jeannette Ezell – Dayton, Ohio
- Megan Powell – Cottontown, Tennessee
- Nelida Lozoya-Lewis – El Paso, Texas
- Leann Ledford – Spokane, Washington