Advocating for her fellow caregivers

December 16, 2018 GMT

Andrew Jenkins went to war. Then he brought it back to Fort Wayne with him.

After three deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan, Jenkins, 35, suffers from a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, nerve damage and compacted vertebrae in his spine.

His wife, Aimmie Jenkins, and their three children share in Andrew’s pain and gloom, and they try to help him heal. But instead of keeping their troubles to themselves, Aimmie is telling their story in an effort to help others in their situation.

Aimmie, 34, is Indiana’s Dole Caregiver Fellow for 2018-19. She recently attended a week of training for the voluntary position from the Elizabeth Dole Foundation in Washington, D.C., at its annual national convention.

Dole Caregiver Fellows advocate for military and veteran caregivers in their communities and before Congress and try to support fellow caregivers.

“This is completely out of character for me,” Aimmie said. “I’m an introvert by nature. Talking in front of people makes me a little bit nauseous.”

But there she was the last week of November, in the nation’s capital, listening to Vice President Mike Pence, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie and Dole, who has been secretary of transportation, secretary of labor, head of the American Red Cross and North Carolina’s first female U.S. senator.

Aimmie then was pushing the Dole caregiver agenda to Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs and Armed Services committees and a member of the Navy Reserve.

“I told him, ‘Our husbands volunteered, but we were drafted. We want people to see us and to hear us and to truly understand us.’ And at the very end, he was like, ‘Aimmie, I see you and I hear you and I understand you,’” she said.

Banks’ office confirmed that he met with Jenkins and said her recollection of their conservation was accurate.

Laurel Rodewald, director of programs for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, said Dole Caregiver Fellows : typically one from each state, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories : are selected for two-year terms through an application and interview process. Before the training in Washington, Rodewald said about Aimmie, “I think she’s going to do a fantastic job as an advocate.”

The foundation describes military and veteran caregivers as Hidden Heroes. Aimmie said one of her goals is to add Fort Wayne, New Haven and Columbia City to the list of the foundation’s Hidden Heroes Cities, which agree to commit resources to support caregivers. Indianapolis and Marion County are the only participating communities in Indiana.

Aimmie’s wider aim is to inform caregivers that they must also care for themselves.

“When we first become caregivers, we thrust ourselves into this role just to make sure that (our spouse’s) head is above water each day, and we can almost lose ourself,” Aimmie said. “We have to remember that we’re their wives first.”

A 2014 report by Rand Corp. found that military caregivers “consistently experience worse health outcomes, greater strains in family relationships, and more workplace problems than non-caregivers, and post-9/11 military caregivers fare worst in these areas.”

Taking fire

Aimmie met Andrew Jenkins in 2007. He was in the Army, she was a member of the Army National Guard in Wichita, Kansas, and they married in 2009. 

Andrew was from Fort Wayne, a graduate of Snider High School and the son and grandson of military veterans. Aimmie grew up in a military family who hopped around the country.

Andrew’s first deployment was in 2003-2004 in Iraq, where his infantry unit did reconnaissance, identifying and sometimes engaging targets. He said his “first kill” of an enemy combatant happened in 2003 and that “many others” occurred through the years.

Andrew, a cavalry scout, was a constant target, too. On seven occasions, he was a gunner in vehicles that struck or were struck by enemy-set improvised explosive devices.

During his 2012 deployment to Afghanistan, his unit came under attack in an isolated area of mountains considered a hot spot for Taliban rebels.

“Hell was unleashed,” Andrew recalled. “Rockets, mortars, small arms, heavy-caliber weapons : just everything at us.”

A blast from a rocket-propelled grenade overturned the vehicle he was in. Andrew said he dislocated an elbow when he grabbed an Afghan soldier to prevent him from being tossed from the vehicle. Andrew and his colleagues regrouped and returned fire, and the rebels eventually fled, he said.

Sitting at the dining room table in their northeast Fort Wayne home, Andrew nodded toward Aimmie and said, “I never told her this, but it’s one of those things where the men say ‘Good-bye, I love you’ to their spouse or loved one” when leaving home for deployment in a war zone. “We’re in the mindset of that’s the last time we’re going to see them. Because we don’t know what we’re getting into.”

Aimmie was raising three young children when Andrew was in Afghanistan.

“It was hard for me because I didn’t know how to tell them that he was OK when I didn’t know if he was OK,” she said. “I had to reassure them that he’s going to do everything within his power to get back home. It was tough, really tough.”

Andrew left the Army as a staff sergeant in March 2016, ending what he had hoped would be a 20-year military career. He said he was “just crushed” when given a non-combat assignment stateside after his Afghanistan deployment.

“All I had known for the last 12 years was combat,” he said.

After the injuries, war trauma and lengthy bouts of sleeplessness, “It was just almost impossible for me to be me again,” he said.

Helping others

Andrew’s wife and children have tried to adjust to his ailments and anxieties. The children, for example, will recommend sitting at a certain table in a restaurant so that Andrew is facing the door, Aimmie said. They know when they can be noisy while playing at home and when they should be quieter.

She calls Andy, McKenna and Chloie “little heroes” on her story page on the Hidden Heroes website. “Each of them encompass what it means to love without limits,” she wrote.

Aimmie said she took online classes in military crisis counseling from Liberty University “because I wanted to understand” her husband.

To fill a requirement for her undergraduate degree, she received an internship last year with the Shepherd’s House, a temporary shelter for homeless veterans in Fort Wayne. She later became a volunteer there and then was hired as a case manager.

“She is just a rock star here with the veterans,” said Tracey Barr, manager of the Shepherd’s House. “They totally respect her as a soldier, as someone that’s a been-there, done-that type of person, and the fact that she is a full-time caregiver to her husband and manages to juggle this incredibly busy life that she’s in.”

Aimmie’s job has been therapeutic. She said she sees “little glimpses” of Andrew in the homeless veterans, and that gives her hope.

“Every single day I would see positive changes there,” she said.

Baring her soul

Aimmie, who is enrolled in graduate classes in mental health counseling offered by Liberty, bared her soul in a commentary for The Journal Gazette that was published Nov. 11, Veterans Day.

“I feel alone, isolated and rejected as many friends, family and co-workers have distanced themselves from us,” she wrote.

“I realize I’ll never be able to fix the physical or emotional hurt or erase the trauma, and that makes me feel worthless as a caregiver,” she wrote.

“This is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done; it’s a 24/7/365 job. I am mentally and physically exhausted.”

But there also was this: “Being his caregiver means I get one more day with him. And there is nothing in this world I would trade for that,” she wrote.

“More than anything, my heart has changed; it is bigger, softer and stronger. I care more about people and life than before.”

Aimmie said inside her home that the commentary “was my first time sharing how raw it is.”

It came with being a Dole Caregiver Fellow. When Aimmie’s class was announced this year, Dole said in a statement, “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.”

Aimmie was asked whether taking on a commitment like being a Dole Caregiver Fellow was scary.

“Oh, absolutely,” she replied. “It makes the fear of failure even more profound. Not that I can particularly fail at this, but the fear of not doing a good job, I guess.”

Andrew smiled softly at her and reminded Aimmie that she recently had “rubbed shoulders” with federal officials and Dole Foundation leaders in Washington.

“I think you did pretty well,” he said.