1 of 2
Kathleen Causey's life changed when her husband, Aaron Causey, was struck by an EOD. Photo by Sydney Cromwell.
2 of 2
Kathleen and Aaron Causey have worked to put their life back together after Aaron was injured by an explosive in Afghanistan. They now live in Greystone with their 18-month-old daughter A.J. Photo by Sydney Cromwell.
When Kathleen Causey married a man who worked in explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), she knew his chances of injury were higher than many of his fellow soldiers. That didn’t make it any less shocking when two of Aaron Causey’s EOD service members showed up on her doorstep on Sept. 7, 2011.
Just a few months after their first anniversary, the Causeys’ life plans were put on hold and Kathleen found herself thrust into the role of a caregiver wife. Aaron had lost both legs and some of his fingers to a bomb in Afghanistan, and he was also suffering from extensive tissue damage and a traumatic brain injury.
“I felt sick. I was sick to my stomach because I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” Kathleen said.
After his initial treatment in Germany, Aaron was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, to continue recovering. He and Kathleen would live there for two years as he had multiple surgeries and slowly learned to use his prosthetic legs and wheelchair.
“It’s very different when this happens in your 30s than in your 20s,” Kathleen said. “Recovering from these kinds of injuries, the toll it takes on your body hormonally, just having the injury. If he pushed himself to the limit, he was out for two days.”
Along the way, Kathleen learned a lot about taking care of a wounded veteran. She figured out how to support Aaron without mothering him and how to fight for her husband’s needs with doctors and insurance companies. She also saw firsthand that something as simple as an electric wheelchair, which seemed liberating to her, could be horrifying to Aaron as he realized the permanent limits of his freedom and mobility.
“You don’t know the tenacity of the human spirit. There were days when I went to bed, and I swore to God and sweet Jesus, I wasn’t going to wake up the next day. It was like, ‘I’m done. I’ve got nothing left to give,’” Kathleen said.
The Causeys lost a lot from Aaron’s injuries. Kathleen’s plans to return to school were put on indefinite hold, and doctors told them they were unlikely to have children without fertility treatments. They had to plan everything around accommodating Aaron’s wheelchair and supplies, from traveling to buying the furniture, car or home they wanted.
“We are an afterthought when it comes to society. When you live with a disability, you come second. They build a place and then realize they didn’t build it for you,” she said.
But there were also bright spots, such as the widespread community support they found and A.J., their “miracle baby” who is now 18 months old. With Aaron staying at home, he gets to help with A.J.’s care and watch his daughter grow up.
“We’re just so appreciative every day of the little things,” Kathleen said. “You’ve just got to be open to what’s going to make you happy.”
The Causeys relocated to Alabama about a year ago and recently moved to Greystone to be near Kathleen’s family. She grew up in the area and graduated from Oak Mountain High School. They are working on raising money to build a wheelchair accessible home in Pell City, which would split the distance between each of their families.
Aaron has multiple surgeries ahead of him, including re-laying muscles in one leg and a series of procedures to break his femur and attempt to lengthen it. Kathleen will always have to be the primary caregiver and doggedly pursue surgeries, medical equipment or other services to improve his quality of life.
“I know what I’m capable of. I know where that power comes from. Some of it is anger – we lost our life, we lost all of our normal plans,” Kathleen said. “You get to plan your life when you’re healthy. We lost a healthy marriage – a physically healthy marriage. I lost the ability to see him run with my children.”
Through this continuing struggle, Kathleen found a passion for advocating on the behalf of other wounded veterans. She received the Col. John Gioia Patriot Award in March 2013 from the United Service Organizations (USO) Metro, and her family was the subject of a short documentary, “The Next Part,” that released in April 2014.
Earlier this year, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation named Kathleen one of its 2015 Caregiver Fellows. In May, she will travel to Washington, D.C. to advocate for wounded veterans and their caregivers, as well as participate in committees that will share their perspectives on current legislation and treatment.
“I have very valuable user information here,” Kathleen said. “There’s no way to put a price on what I’ve learned.”
She said the fellows will include caregivers of soldiers with physical injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and other illnesses such as cancer. Their advice will be given to politicians and employees of the Veteran’s Administration.
“Kathleen was already an active voice among the military and veteran caregiving community,” Steve Schwab, the executive director of the Dole Foundation, said. “We’re thankful she has chosen to dedicate her precious time and energy to our cause.”
While she’s there, Kathleen hopes to focus particularly on fertility issues for veterans and related issues, such as adoption services and regulations for fertility treatments.
These are among the many problems that will be a permanent part of life for Aaron and thousands of other veterans.
“I’ll never not be his caregiver in some way. He will never not be wounded,” Kathleen said. “Our life will never get fixed. It gets better because we get better at it, but it doesn’t magically get fixed one day. You don’t wake up and feel whole or normal.”
To follow the Causeys’ journey, visit Kathleen’s blog at afterblastwarriorwife.com.