When you’re asked if you’ll take your spouse for “better or worse” I’m not sure many of us really think about what “worse” could really mean. Unemployment? A few more arguments than you expected? The loss of hair or addition of some unwanted pounds? Sure. But what about when your spouse leaves for work and returns home changed by physical wounds that require your constant care and attention or invisible injuries that cause a very visible change in their demeanor, attitude and inevitably your marriage. When the life you once lived or dreamed of is no more because the sacrifice of your loved one is now yours as well.

As I looked around at those attending the 3rd USO Caregivers Conference in San Antonio, TX- a conference held to provide caregivers of wounded, ill and injured with advice and resources, I realized while the warriors in the room who suffered from amputations, severe burns, Post Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury are in fact our nation’s heroes, so are their caregivers.

[caption id=“attachment_7325” align=“aligncenter” width=“500”] Ed and Karen Matayka[/caption]

Take Vermont National Guard Medic Karen Matayka. Her duties changed the day an IED explosion severely wounded her husband Sgt. Ed Matayka. With both of Ed’s legs amputated below the knee, he relies on Karen for constant support including getting him to doctor’s appointments and in and out of bed.

“I had to go from being soldier to caregiver as well as a spouse. That’s a really hard transition and it’s also very hard for the warrior to allow that to happen,” said Karen.

Karen told the more than 100 caregivers (parents, spouses, children, friends and siblings), wounded, ill and injured, and military medical personnel in attendance that marriage can work after the battlefield.

[caption id=“attachment_7324” align=“aligncenter” width=“500”] Shilo and Kathreyn Harris[/caption]

Kathreyn Harris’ life changed forever the night an IED struck the military vehicle her husband was in, leaving him with severe and disfiguring burns. When Staff Sergeant Shilo Harris was able to return home, Kathreyn became his primary caregiver, but she didn’t have much time to focus on her own feelings and needs. She also had to be there for their small children, making sure they were okay emotionally and explaining to them what happened to “daddy”.  Their daughter had a lot of questions.

“I didn’t have answers for her.  There are some days we still don’t have the answers,” said Kathreyn. “We listen to her.  We validate her.  It’s OK to have these feelings.  It is OK to be mad, scared and frustrated.”

[caption id=“attachment_7323” align=“aligncenter” width=“500”] Mike and Maria Martinez[/caption]

Two months after flying from El Paso, TX to Los Angeles, CA to help the USO educate the public on invisible wounds of war, Army Sergeant Mike Martinez traveled to San Antonio to attend the USO Caregivers Conference. Though she’s not fond of flying, his wife Maria was once again, right by his side. Martinez would not be able to travel without her. She’s the one who ensures that he gets his medicine, makes it to his doctor’s appointments, comforts him when he has nightmares and reminds him of the things he forgets.

When I asked Mike how he enjoyed the conference, his response was both humorous and moving. He proudly said “I feel like the USO brought together the Avengers.” His words could not have been truer. However, our nation’s true Avengers, or super heroes, aren’t just the men and women who serve our country, but also those who care for them, when they return. Like our military heroes, caregivers also sacrifice- often giving up their time, jobs and sometimes any hope of reclaiming what used to be, and they ask for nothing in return. They don’t wear uniforms, badges or receive medals. They’re only identifiable by where they stand- by the side of our nation’s warriors, truly for better or worse.

For more information about USO Caregivers Conferences or other USO Warrior and Family Care Programs, visit USO.org/WarriorandFamilyCare  - Kenya Friend-Daniel, USO Senior Communications Specialist