Hidden Heroes: He fought for us. And she fought for him.

Hannah Swayze • Updated Jul 8, 2018 at 3:00 PM

Editor’s note: This article is the third in a series dedicated to highlighting caregivers and the veterans they serve. Look for more in upcoming editions of the Johnson City Press.

Susan Freeman became her husband Justin’s caregiver after he returned from war. He was severely injured after his truck was shattered by a 1,000-pound improvised explosive device, or IED, in 2009, though looking at him and talking to him today, you might not notice more than a limp.

Justin, a U.S. Army veteran, said it was the largest successfully detonated IED that had been used in Afghanistan at that point in the war.

The explosion left Justin severely injured. He suffered damage to his brain and spinal cord and various other places throughout his body. It wasn't until after he painfully finished out his deployment and returned to the United States that he and his family realized just how much damage had been done.

“When he walked off the plane I could see that he was just broken,” said Susan. “He was broken mentally and physically and spiritually broken.”

When Justin returned, he was put in rehabilitation, going to appointment after appointment. It wasn't long before Susan realized that he wasn't really getting better.

Justin was grieving the loss of his career in the Army and struggling both physically and mentally. His injuries were numerous: nerve damage in his shoulder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and more. His mental health plummeted.

"One of the most difficult things for us to talk about is really how I became his caregiver because I was basically trying to keep him alive because the shell of the person that came home didn’t want to live any longer," she said.

Susan realized that to get Justin the care that he needed, she was going to have to advocate for him. She would have to be his voice.

“He was broken and he had given everything that he was for this country, so this was unacceptable to me,” Susan said.

She took all of her data, everything she knew and what she wanted to do and put it into a Powerpoint presentation — and it worked.

“Basically the Army put me in charge — a civilian — of keeping him alive,” she said.

She began the year-long process of getting him medically retired. She focused immediately on his mental health, dealing with his grief and the trauma of what happened.

Soon, Susan also realized, they had to move. The family was living in Fort Bragg at the time, and there, military life was unescapable. They decided to look for another place to live and they heard about the Mountain Home Veterans Affairs Healthcare System.

“Once we came here it was like the Disney World of VAs,” said Susan.

Susan says their lives look a lot different now.

They continue to find injuries today that they didn't know about, but they've learned to manage their lives better. They're better at managing Justin's PTSD, they've found the Caregiver program, which helps Susan as well, and found people to help them when they need it.

They're also kept busy with their three children, two boys and a girl, who are 14, 9 and 4.

"They are Justin's biggest fans because they identify that he's a hero," Susan said.

She still manages Justin's care. Now, he takes a more holistic approach to his medical care. He takes no painkillers and uses acupuncture. They've also developed an unusual sense of humor to get through it all.

With the help of the Caregivers program, Susan says she has been able to focus on herself a little more. She uses her networking skills to help other veterans and caregivers by passing on her knowledge of the Veterans Affairs system and other programs and benefits that are available to veterans.

“Hopefully through our story, if there's somebody out there who is struggling in any way that they will really understand and identify with the fact that sometimes, you fight and you fight for so long that you need someone to help you, and that asking for help is more than OK,” she said.

“That it’s really the best thing you can do for yourself and the people that love you. And you may not even realize how many people do love you.”

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