Trizer Smith has seen her husband, Jason, make significant progress over the past couple years.
Jason was deployed to Afghanistan with the Army’s 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division in 2011 when a convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device that left him with bone spurs in his feet, a loss of mobility in his shoulder, neck and back, a traumatic brain injury, depression, anxiety, memory loss and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
He had so many nightmares he used to sleep on the couch. He did not feel comfortable going out in public. Although he never found an exact correlation, he believes his high stress led to his pancreas not creating enough enzymes to help him digest his food, which caused excruciating pain.
Jason knows how lucky he is to have Trizer in his corner, and so does the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.
In mid-February, Trizer was one of 28 active military and veteran caregivers named Dole Caregiver Fellows for the 2018 class. They join a network of nearly 150 caregivers who have been recognized and urged to bring attention to the fact that an estimated 5.5 million spouses, parents, family members and friends are providing more than $14 billion in voluntary care for wounded, ill or injured veterans.
A RAND Corporation study commissioned by the Foundation pointed out that a well-supported caregiver is the single most important factor in a veteran’s improvement and recovery. Dole Caregiver Fellows advise the Foundation, its coalition partners and government and community leaders on the most pressing issues concerning military caregivers.
“Though they come from different states and territories and care for veterans and service members with a variety of needs, these brave men and women share common stories of struggle and triumph, resilience and hope,” said former U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole, founder of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.
Trizer made sure Jason made it to his appointments at the VA and would take the medications he needed while she juggled her own work schedule and being a mother.
She now works for Hennepin County, helping connect people to services provided by the state’s MnCHOICES program.
Trizer and Jason have three children. Imani will celebrate her fifth birthday in March and will be starting kindergarten this fall. Imani’s brother Jason’s birthday is also in March. He will be 2 years old. Mackenzie is 5 months old.
Some battles were longer than others. Trizer recalled how she needed to press the VA to do a CT scan on her husband’s back. He was having a hard time sitting or standing for long hours, but the VA initially brushed it off as ongoing chronic pain. When it finally did the CT scan, the VA discovered his back was getting worse and increased treatments.
While Jason still has the occasional bad day or nightmare, they are far less frequent. He no longer sleeps on the couch. He has gone to his oldest daughter’s swim school and dance academy functions. His family has taken day trips around the area, such as the Bunker Beach water park. They took a trip to Sea World and Universal Studios in Florida, thanks to help from Wounded Warrior Family Support.
They have met more of their neighbors and were excited to find out that the Club West clubhouse near their home has an outdoor pool, among other amenities that also include sand volleyball and tennis courts.
“He’s doing fine. He’s happy. The kids are happy. Everyone is taken care of,” Trizer said.
Raising a family
It was by pure chance that Jason and Trizer met in 2011 at Garden of the Gods in Colorado. Jason was in the early stages of treatment for his wounds, and Trizer was a social worker.
“Once we started dating, we never left each other’s side,” Jason said.
They married in 2013. They lived in Ohio, Jason’s home state, before moving to Minnesota. Trizer has family in Minnesota, and they knew the Minneapolis VA had a good reputation for helping veterans with Jason’s type of injuries.
When Imani was still an infant, the family received a mortgage-free townhome in Blaine through a multi-partnership effort spearheaded by the nonprofit Military Warriors Support Foundation. Chase Bank provided the home, and AT&T donated $20,000 to cover three years of financial mentorship and emotional counseling.
They moved into the Blaine home in the Club West development in December 2013 and received the property title three years later. They are considering a move to a larger home.
Trizer, the caregivers’ advocate
Now that she is a Dole Caregiver Fellow, Trizer wants to advocate for more assistance for caregivers and strengthen networks in Blaine and other communities so caregivers of veterans and active service members know they’re not forgotten and that there’s a long list of organizations that can help them.
The Elizabeth Dole Foundation launched the Hidden Heroes campaign in September 2016 to establish a national registry of military caregivers through HiddenHeroes.org and to encourage communities to become Hidden Heroes Cities. Cities and counties in 39 states, along with Washington D.C., have joined the ranks, but none are in Minnesota at this time.
Thanks to the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010, additional services are available to post-9/11 veterans and their caregivers. This includes: a monthly stipend, travel expenses when accompanying a veteran for ongoing care, mental health services and counseling, comprehensive VA caregiver training provided by Easter Seals and not less than 30 days per year of respite care. For the respite care, Jason’s parents have been flown in from Ohio to provide additional assistance for Trizer for up to 30 days per year.
Trizer would like these services to be extended to pre-9/11 caregivers.
Trizer has connected with other caregivers through Skype for peer networking and to learn about the various programs available not only to veterans but caregivers. This could include home care, legal services, transportation, financial and emotional counseling and much more. She stresses to caregivers that it’s OK to ask for help.
“In my role as a Dole Caregiver Fellow, I want to shed some light on the importance of supporting caregivers’ wellbeing,” Trizer said. “In order to continue providing care, we need to avoid burnout, manage stress, and take care of our own physical and mental health.”