UPDATE June 8, 2018
Earlier this week the President signed into law the “VA MISSION Act,” a bill that will extend eligibility for VA’s comprehensive caregiver assistance program to veterans severely injured before September 11, 2001. The approval of this legislation marks an historical expansion of the VA caregiver program and is a huge leap forward towards providing fairness to all veteran caregivers. It took years of debate, collaboration and finally compromise, but soon thousands more catastrophically injured veterans of all eras—and their caregivers—will become eligible for critical programs and services that they were once denied. While we will continue this fight in the years ahead to ensure that no veteran or unsung hero is left behind, this was a major victory and we couldn’t have done it without advocates like you.
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ALEXIS & JASON COURNEEN
Alexis Courneen was a 19-year-old brand-new seaman on her first duty assignment in the Coast Guard in 1998 when she was struck by a several-ton buoy. The accident crushed the nerves of her right arm, broke her hip and slammed her head into the deck. She was medically evacuated from the ship and put on administrative duty. Over time, it became apparent that Alexis was suffering from short-term memory loss and had trouble concentrating. She was medically discharged from the Coast Guard in 2000.
In 2003, Alexis married a man whom she had known since she was 13 years old, Jason. She said she told Jason about her accident and that it had affected her abilities to perform everyday tasks.
“I told him that if he expected me to be the same person he knew in high school, he would be disappointed," Alexis said in an interview.
What Alexis—and Jason—didn’t know at the time, was that Alexis had symptoms of traumatic brain injury (TBI.) Headaches, memory problems, angry outbursts and blurred vision made it difficult for Alexis to manage mundane tasks on her own. Jason became her caregiver and was often forced to choose between providing for Alexis or going to work.
“I’m our girls’ father, her husband, I’m her best friend,” said Jason. “Caregiver is way down on the bottom of the list. I recognize that I have that role, I just don’t like that word. ‘Caregiver’ sounds like I’m taking care of her and that’s not it. She’s taking care of herself the best that she can, and I fill in the blanks.”
The Courneens are among the many veterans and caregivers who don’t qualify under the current law for caregiver benefits such as training, stipends or respite care. Only because Alexis’s injuries occurred before 9/11. But they do make it a priority for their family to be as socially and physically active as possible with volunteer programs and support systems available like adaptive sports clinics for disabled veterans.
“The [adaptive sports clinics] are a big deal because most of the people I consider to be my best friends are here,” said Jason. “It’s huge for our family because I get to watch Alexis excel at the things she used to do before she got injured.”
The support systems and activities that are available to the Courneen family are essential to their well-being, but are often only possible due to volunteers or sponsored activities.
“There’s not a lot of support groups out there,” said Jason. “It makes my role as a caregiver a lot easier to know that we have that sense of security that sense of support that sense of help we find at the clinics. And that’s huge.”