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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DENNIS & DONNA JOYNER
DAV Past National Commander Dennis Joyner was drafted to join the Army during the Vietnam Conflict. While on patrol in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, Dennis became a triple amputee as a result of a land mine explosion. While he says he doesn’t remember the explosion itself or flying through the air, he does remember falling back down to the ground and realizing the extent of his injuries.
“That’s when I started to lose it,” reflected Dennis. “But my sergeant calmed me down by slapping me and reminding me of my family waiting for me back home. My fellow soldiers kept me alive and conscious so I wouldn’t go into shock before the medevac helicopter arrived.”
Dennis said he didn’t imagine anyone would want him after that, he thought he’d be alone forever. But in 1981 Dennis married Donna Shultz, a 28-year-old woman who Dennis says is a saint for coming into his situation knowing how “out of the normal” their lives would be.
“She didn’t know me before,” said Dennis. “She didn’t know the kid who had been more than six-feet-tall and athletic. But she knew me, for me. And I thank her for loving as I am.”
“We [caregivers] all sacrifice a lot. We don’t live our lives the same as anybody else,” Donna said. “I’ve given up an awful, awful lot, and I would do it again any time.”
In 2008, Dennis’s rotator cuff in his one good arm blew out, requiring him to have surgery that would leave him unable to take care of himself during recovery. Donna made the decision to quit her career in order to care for Dennis at their home.
“I gave up my job, the income, any pension that I would have received,” said Donna. “I will not get as much Social Security when I get to be that age because I had to leave and take care of my husband, because my husband was totally incapacitated, and we did not want him to go to a rehab facility, because he wouldn’t get the care at a rehab facility that he would with me.”
Post-9/11 veterans and caregivers are afforded benefits for caregivers including training on best care practices and support solutions. But because Dennis was injured in Vietnam, Donna doesn’t receive that kind of education.
“We never had any sort of training, nobody even suggested it” said Dennis. “It would have helped if there had been some sort of caregiver training Donna could have received to help her learn the most basic tasks required to be a caregiver for a disabled veteran. Everything she’s done for me, she’s had to figure out for herself.”
The physical care Dennis requires is much more in-depth than he believes people realize. And all that falls on Donna.
“She has to help me get in and out of my chair, to help me slide into bed or into the shower,” Dennis said. “If I get sick, I can’t take care of myself, it would all fall on her. Even packing a suitcase or cooking myself a meal, Donna is there to help me, to take care of the physical part of it, all of my basic day-to-day living. I think she—and any caregiver of a disabled veteran from any era—deserve any and all resources, benefits and educational tools available. It just makes sense.”