From the Caregiver’s Perspective: How to cope, how to support the veteran, and how to make a difference

By Andrew Nelson, LMT – Father of Sergeant Sean Major

My son is a proud United States Marine and has served his country for nearly eight years. USMC Sergeant Sean J. Major lives with 33 medical conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and has sustained four separate traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) in his service of our great nation.


The unique pain of invisible illness

PTSD and TBIs could be among the most common conditions facing America’s veterans today. However, when compared to an individual missing a limb—or having some other physical disability—these mental wounds are hardly noticeable at all. Most often, only those closest to the patient (family, a friend or caregiver) would have any clue about the stressful, terrifying—sometimes life-and-death battles of survival—that so many servicemen and women deal with on a daily basis.


The staggering 22 veteran suicides each day in the U.S. seems almost unimaginable to me. Sadly, I believe that number is even higher!


In my experience as a parent, a veteran, a licensed massage therapist, and someone who’s witnessed my fair share of hands-on healing, nothing is more disheartening than being unable to ease the anguish of another person’s suffering. I believe one of life’s cruelest punishments is to helplessly watch another human being live a life of misery and, eventually, die alone.


There are countless “Wounded Warriors” throughout America who suffer every day in ways most of us could never imagine. Without the visible wounds of a physically handicapped veteran, these men and women are often left to combat their horrific symptoms with little-to-no real support system in place.


The promise of medical cannabis

Over the years, Sean and I have talked about his nightmares, panic attacks, anxiety, and paranoid-induced episodes of PTSD. “The pharmaceuticals only make things worse, Dad,” he says. Awaiting his honorable medical discharge from military service, Sean has chosen to become an advocate for medicinal cannabis at the Wounded Warriors Battalion at Camp Pendleton, California.


In the summer of 2015, he began preparing for civilian life by earning an education as a horticulturist, while simultaneously working in the cannabis industry, with the full knowledge and support of his immediate chain of command.


The debate on legalization of cannabis is a topic for a different discussion. I support my son’s choice. It makes me proud to see the “caregiver” in him reaching out to help other veterans learn ways to cope, adjust and prepare for civilian life after military service.


An alternative to pain, isolation, and a terrible end

Sean’s vision, Eden After Service, will offer transitional housing and job training, in conjunction with horticulture therapy, medicinal cannabis, massage therapy, and other natural remedies, in the hopes of reducing dependency on the cocktail of pharmaceuticals given so freely to our brave soldiers. Just a young man, my son has more prescription bottles than I care to count. Sean takes medicine to counteract the effects of the prescriptions necessary to treat the injuries he has received as a Marine.


It’s frightening to imagine how much, or how often, these dangerous prescription drugs are contributing to the bizarre psychotic behaviors leading up to (in some cases) a person taking his/her own life. Without question, my greatest fear lies in knowing that while the military (slowly) decides the fate of Sergeant Sean Major, my son—or any number of his comrades-in-arms—may become another awful, statistic in the toll of veteran suicides in America.


The pain of a father

Today, Sean and I keep in contact on a regular basis. Still a Marine, and still awaiting his well-deserved discharge, he resides in the San Diego area, while I currently live in Colorado. We talk a few times each week and it has become apparent to me how frequently the TBIs make even the simplest of cognitive functions a challenge for him.


The pain, discomfort, and sheer frustration it causes my 26-year-old son only makes matters worse. As a father, it’s devastating to experience the helplessness and inability to assist your own child. The only thing worse would be to let Sean (or his siblings) see just how much it tears me apart inside. I must remain positive and become a pillar of strength for others to lean upon when the going gets tough. It is never an easy job… but every parent tries their best to do it.


Advice for other caregivers

For anyone faced with the difficult task of caring for our beloved veterans, my advice is fairly simple: live in the now! I frequently ground myself in the perspective of Eckhart Tolle, who emphasizes “presence”—living in the now, not the past, so that we don’t accumulate so much negativity.


As a therapist, I encourage clients to focus on breathing when chaos begins taking over their lives. Meditation can be a powerful tool for influencing and empowering the human thought process.


Build a support network. This starts at home with family and loved ones. Spouses, moms, dads, brothers and sisters… our children… aunts, uncles and so on… let our veterans know we are here for them and they are not alone.


Don’t be afraid to listen and encourage them to talk about their experiences, both the good ones and the bad. Seek professional counseling with a psychiatric specialist, if necessary. Extend your arms and open your hearts. Establish a broad network of resources to help weather the storms.


Most of all, tell your wounded veteran how much you love and appreciate them. Since the days of the Vietnam War, America’s veterans have not always been welcomed home with the honor and respect they have earned. Heavy is the cross of our nation’s warriors. Our veterans, our children, and our families, deserve our collective and unwavering support. We must stand strong, America, to help prevent the next senseless and unthinkable tragedy.