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2023 HSR&D/QUERI National Conference Abstract

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5016 — Acknowledging Caregiver Experiences, To Arm Veteran Families With Resources

Lead/Presenter: Carlos Urbina
All Authors: URBINA CR, MARINE CORPS COMBAT VETERAN, 2000-2016; From War to Home: The Impact of Invisible Injuries

The goals of this participatory action research study were to explore the effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and other ‘invisible injuries’ of war on Veterans and caregivers and to communicate findings to other Veterans and caregivers, health care providers, and administrators and policymakers.

Hundreds of thousands of U.S. Veterans and their families are significantly affected by TBI, posttraumatic stress, and other non-physical injuries, yet policymakers and the general public often lack knowledge about these ‘invisible injuries.’ Forty-five Veterans of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) and 26 of their caregivers collaborated with VA researchers using Photovoice methods to share and reflect on their experiences with health, illness, and community reintegration after military service.

My caregiver (spouse) and I entered the project as participants shortly after I medically retired from the Marine Corps after 16 years of service. I contacted Dr. Gala True, the Principal Investigator, not realizing the at the time the power of a photonarrative nor the lifelong partnership that would develop between myself and Gala. When the time came for our stories to be printed and part of a traveling exhibit, Gala asked my spouse and I if we would join a panel to discuss our participation in the project, and without hesitation we said “yes!”.

From War to Home: The Impact of Invisible Injuries is on permanent display at our local VA medical center and has traveled to national conferences including The Elizabeth Dole Foundation Annual Convening in 2019, where my wife and I presented on our experiences with VA research. My wife co-authored a paper in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, and I co-authored a paper that was published in the Journal of Community Engagement in Scholarship. Among the many positive impacts of our involvement in this participatory action research project are the deep bonds we have formed with Gala and other members of the research team, as well as the other Veterans and caregivers who were part of the project. In addition, my wife and I have both joined Gala as advisors and partners on her team’s suicide prevention research.

Not only did Photovoice allow me to express my thoughts and emotions in a safe, non-judgmental environment, but it also gave my wife a “voice” in a veteran focused atmosphere. Thanks to our participation in this project, my wife was able to express her emotions, thoughts and concerns that accompany being a caregiver to a combat veteran with disabilities. It also strengthened our marriage and commitment. Photovoice was the first time someone asked my wife, “how are you doing?”, which was so powerful, because it emphasized our journey was not just about me and my health, but us, as a combat veteran family.