Military Caregiver Finds Hope Through Wounded Warrior Project’s Independence Program and WWP Partner Organizations
Shannon Tuimalealiifano and her husband Sualauvi (Sua) are Army veterans who met at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, while they were active-duty soldiers.
Shannon, a trained combat medic, worked in a lab at Womack Army Medical Center. Her military training came in handy when preparing the family for Sua’s deployments with Army Special Forces as a paratrooper, jumpmaster, and Special Operations soldier. The young couple enjoyed the support of living in a military community and were prepared to make sacrifices.
But after Sua was injured in combat, nothing could have prepared Shannon for the exhausting work of being a full-time caregiver while raising three children, who were 6, 4, and 9 months old at the time.
Things were happening fast, and it was difficult to adjust to the severity of Sua’s injuries. Sua was thrown out of his vehicle during a firefight and slammed on his back. He heard something snap but was pulled back into the vehicle and continued to fight. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that he lost mobility – he had broken vertebrae and a spinal cord injury. He could no longer move from the waist down. After surgery to stabilize his spine, he also lost the use of his upper body and became quadriplegic.
Within a week of Sua’s medevac from Afghanistan, Shannon joined him at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for first-line care, and then at James Haley VA Hospital in Tampa, Florida, for polytrauma and neurological rehab. Shannon’s parents helped take care of the children so that she could focus on Sua’s care. Having just left the military after the birth of their third child, Shannon still worked at Womack as a civilian contractor, and Sua, despite his injuries, was still on the active-duty list.
A New Reality
“I was still in shock, I didn’t know where to look for help,” Shannon said. “I was focused on him and didn’t know yet how much help I would need.”
After almost two years in VA hospitals and physical rehab, Sua was finally discharged and returned home to Fort Bragg. He did not have the follow-up that VA would normally set up for a veteran because he was still on active-duty status and not yet medically discharged from the Army.
That meant that Shannon and Sua returned home without a soft landing. Sua had to sleep on the living room floor the first night because their house was not set up for handicap access. His wheelchair didn’t fit through the doors. He couldn’t access the bedroom and bathroom on his own.
We were able to cry together and share with each other what we couldn’t share with our spouses. We now had the advantage of leaning on each other – it saved my life.
At the time, Fort Bragg didn’t have the medical specialties to help a quadriplegic soldier with spinal cord injury rehab. Not knowing how long a medical discharge would take, the couple decided to ask for a compassionate reassignment so they could move to Hawaii, where Sua’s family lives. This allowed Sua’s family and community to offer support for them and their children.
In Hawaii, his friends built an outdoor shower for Sua and adapted doorways to his wheelchair’s width. Sua's parents and siblings helped him do additional therapy at home, but even with strong family support, things were still intense.
Shannon remembers doing Sua’s catheter changes every four hours around the clock and getting up in the middle of the night with the youngest child. Without any respite, exhaustion and sleep deprivation eventually caught up with her.
“I broke apart,” Shannon said.
Taking everything on
The round-the-clock responsibilities and constant worry understandably took a toll.
“After almost two years in Hawaii, I had a nervous breakdown,” Shannon recalled. “I struggled with accepting help.
“When you’re used to being a stronger person and being independent, you take everything on. It can be unhealthy.”
At that point, both Shannon and Sua realized they needed to take the next step in care – not just for his recovery, but for Shannon’s well-being as well.
“It was Wounded Warrior Project that saved me after the breakdown,” Shannon said. “They flew me (from Hawaii to Florida) and other caregivers for an equine therapy program. It was lifesaving and life-giving.”
That pause allowed Shannon to see how much she needed to be around other military caregivers. “That was nourishing to me,” Shannon said. “We were able to cry together and share with each other what we couldn’t share with our spouses. We now had the advantage of leaning on each other – it saved my life.”
When Shannon looks back, she realized she had started to have suicidal ideation. She felt trapped mentally. “I didn’t see a way to change the situation but acknowledging my mental state was important,” Shannon reflected.
Finding Relief with WWP’s Independence Program
After attending the caregiver program, Shannon learned about WWP’s Independence Program, which opened new doors for her and Sua.
The Independence Program helps veterans with brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, and neurological conditions – whether caused by combat injuries, non-combat injuries, or medical issues – live as independently as possible. By working with warriors, families, and caregivers, WWP helps craft care plans and goals that fit individualized objectives.
For Sua, the Independence Program provided physical therapy and fitness-related activities like stretching, weightlifting, and riding an adaptive bike. He’s into adaptive rugby, so practicing on the rugby wheelchair is on his IP agenda. He also receives help with learning how to perform household tasks like laundry and grocery shopping independently. The Independence Program also provides him with massage therapy to help reduce pain and muscle stiffness.
For Shannon, the Independence Program connected her with other caregivers online and introduced her to supportive partner organizations that allowed her to blossom and feel less alone.
Lastly, WWP’s Independence Program is assisting both Shannon and Sua in planning for the future. This helps to ensure the needs of their family are met even if support from a caregiver is no longer available.
Achieving Independence and Engaging in Community
With new tools to empower their journey, Shannon and Sua made a big move back to Tampa where polytrauma assistance was available.
“We felt the support was tangible in Tampa. We decided to go where there’s a family-like environment,” Shannon said.
Outside of the military, I see my fellow caregivers as my soldiers… I want others to know that it’s going to be OK even if it isn't OK yet.
Shannon compared this last move with being in the military and taking the next step. “Sometimes, the next step is not what you thought it would be,” she said. “We had to choose to either be near family or have access to medical support. Sometimes military families must come to terms with the fact that what they assumed would work isn’t the best situation.”
In Tampa, Shannon continued her growth and found purpose in mentoring other caregivers. Eventually, she translated her experiences into The Rosie Network’s entrepreneurial program that empowered her to create a conceptual veterans’ village to surround military heroes and their families in nurturing and support.
“The way I see it, mentorship of caregivers helps individuals, and building a warrior village helps whole communities,” Shannon explained. Through working with The Rosie Network, she was prompted to consider how to turn a dream into a project that would attract private companies and other nonprofits to collaborate to help severely injured veterans heal and thrive.
Shannon’s conceptual veterans’ village would integrate adaptive sports because she saw firsthand how Sua found new purpose in sports. His new passion has taken him all the way to international competitions. Through adaptive sports, “his outlook and demeanor changed, and he realized he could enjoy life again,” Shannon observed.
A future veterans’ village would also be family-centered and include space for a summer camp and offer therapeutic healing and support for military kids. The concept is in keeping with Shannon and Sua’s Samoan culture and sense of extended family and community, as well as the sense of servant leadership that permeated both their military careers.
“Sua and I continue to help other families and it helps us find purpose,” Shannon said. Sua mentors other veterans through adaptive sports, and Shannon continues to work with Hidden Heroes, part of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, to support other military families in the Tampa area.
“In the military, we were non-commissioned officers and we led and trained other soldiers,” Shannon said. “Outside of the military, I see my fellow caregivers as my soldiers… I want others to know that it’s going to be OK even if it isn't OK yet.”
Shannon and Sua both found support and new purpose through WWP services like the Independence Program. If you are caring for a wounded warrior or know of a post-9/11 veteran in need, learn more about WWP’s Independence Program.
Learn more about WWP's mental health services for veterans and military caregivers.
Contact: Raquel Rivas – Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.426.9783
About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.