Melissa Novoa says the first instinct is to fix the situation. But problems like this don’t come with a manual.

Her husband, medically retired Marine Sgt. Danny Novoa, was nearly killed in November 2008 in Iraq when a roadside bomb exploded just five feet from where he was standing. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, was blinded in his left eye and has to deal with epilepsy and permanently embedded shrapnel.

Melissa Novoa participates in a panel discussion Monday during the USO Caregivers Conference at Camp Pendleton, Calif. | Photo credit Michael Clifton

“Your first instinct is: ‘I want to fix it. I want to make things better,‘” Melissa said. “And then you’re acting like a mom and you’re acting like a nurse.

“As it is, I almost lost him. So all I want to do is make it better – fix him.”

She and thousands of other military spouses have learned over the last decade that it’s not that easy.

Melissa was one of several military family members sharing their stories Monday at the USO Caregivers Conference at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The conference – the fourth of its kind since 2010 – brings together caregivers from across the country to talk about issues like compassion fatigue, resiliency, helping children cope and communicating with a loved one who returned from war as a different person.

“It’s dog years that we live when we’re caring for others,” said Marine Col. Willard Buhl, commander of the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment. “It’s exhausting. It’s exasperating.”

Melissa’s story is heartbreaking, but she’s hardly alone.

The United States has lost nearly 6,700 troops since 2001 in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. However, the life-changing injury toll is much higher. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, more than 253,000 troops have been diagnosed with some form of traumatic brain injury (TBI), nearly 130,000 troops have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress (PTS) and more than 50,000 troops have suffered physical injuries (at least 1,700 of whom have undergone limb amputations).

These brain injuries – as caregivers quickly find out – don’t just affect their ailing loved ones, but also change the lives of the whole family.

Novoa was driving the youngest of her three children home from his Head Start class in late 2008 when she got an urgent voicemail from her husband’s command. He was on his fourth deployment to the war zones since 2001 – two each in Iraq and Afghanistan – when he was injured by an improvised explosive device. He made it through emergency surgery in Balad, Iraq, but went into a coma and wasn’t assured of surviving for a few agonizing days.

That was just the blur before the long, uphill climb.

When Danny returned stateside, he was sent to the Palo Alto (Calif.) Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center, an eight-hour drive from the family’s Southern California home.

Melissa was forced to quit her job in the front office of a San Marcos, Calif., construction company to oversee Danny’s recovery. During the week, she lived at a Fisher House near the Palo Alto rehabilitation center. On weekends, she drove the eight hours home to see their three children – ages eight, six and four at the time of the blast – who were being cared for by her mother.

Days dragged into weeks and months. And while Melissa wanted nothing more than her husband to get better, she was losing her personal identity in the process.

“My life became what happened to my husband,” she said. “I’m very independent. I have my master’s degree [and] I didn’t go to school for nothing. But yet I was a full-time caregiver.”

Melissa said the situation created constant, acute levels of stress, something fellow caregivers also described during the conference.

“[The blast] changed everything – our future, our marriage,” she said. “I don’t know who I’m going to get the next morning. Who I’m going to get in an hour, in a minute. … I feel like I take on that stress. I take on that [post-traumatic stress] because now I’m always on alert. It’s not just the mental factor. It’s the physical factor as well.”

Nearly three years after the blast, Novoa approached the command at Camp Pendleton with a question. If the military could have programs that help troops find careers after injury, why couldn’t it also have a program for spouses? While Danny could never work again, Melissa felt it was time to get her professional life back on track.

“I got an interview with the hospital, and with my credentialing backing it up, I was able to get a job,” she said. She’s now a human resources technician at Navy Hospital Camp Pendleton.

But Melissa didn’t stop there. She now coaches other caregiver spouses in the area on how to do the same thing.

“My healing to me is helping others,” she said. “[I tell] them ‘You know what? It’s OK to be normal. It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to maybe feel sorry for yourself for a bit but you’ve got to nip it in the bud. You’ve got to make your situation better. You’ve got to find answers.’”

The Novoas continue to evolve. Melissa has more than a year under her belt at the hospital. Danny has good days and bad days, spending his most productive time tinkering in their garage. He still takes part in studies at the Palo Alto center.

Despite their 13 years together, she doesn’t always know what she’ll face when they wake up in the morning. But at this point, she knows she’ll be able to handle whatever happens.

“At first I was walking on eggshells, trying to accommodate only him,” she said. “You’re going to go crazy [if you try that]. You have to handle the situation as it comes.”