Leaving behind military life and the support networks it comes with is complicated. Leaving the military only to deal with your service member's injuries from war -- many of them invisible -- is harder. The result is sometimes tough family situations that can lead to domestic violence.
That's where the organization Healing Household 6 comes in. When a military spouse suddenly becomes a caregiver -- a role they are seldom truly prepared for -- things can get messy fast. Now the spouse is scheduling appointments, managing medication and learning to live with a service member who may have been forced to give up their career before they were ready. As with other dramatic life changes, relationships can suffer -- and maybe turn violent.
"We don't just work with families who are experiencing domestic violence and want to leave, we help them navigate through the muck of what is this?" said Lisa Colella, executive director of Healing Household 6.
"What we think may be domestic violence isn't always," she said. "It could mean there needs to be a different diagnosis or a change to medication. Personality changes can feel like domestic violence, but the treatment for those things is very different, and they are much more successful."
Colella realized that military spouses were looking for advice in these situations -- not necessarily about leaving the relationship, but on how to get their loved one the right kind of care.
The Beginning of Healing Household 6
After joining a Facebook group for caregivers and spouses of combat veterans and service members, Colella saw a trend in the questions being asked. Spouses asked, "Is this behavior normal, or is it a byproduct of something else?"
She started Healing Household 6 (HH6) to aid the part of the military spouse population that wasn't sure whether their experiences were tantamount to abuse.
HH6's main goal is to provide support. In 2018, its demographic grew in an unexpected way. As caregivers separated from their spouses, some of them married service members again. Those new-but-not-really military spouses saw others in their community feeling isolated and unsure of their situations.
HH6 then launched an online group for the Fort Bragg, North Carolina, area and, within three months, had 6,000 active-duty wives in the group looking for support. There have been several groups added since then.
Along with creating a safe space for spouses to seek advice and information, Colella was ready to make bigger changes. In 2016, she was invited to attend a meeting at the Department of Veterans Affairs to discuss issues within the caregiver community.
One of those is the ability veterans currently have to remove their spouse's official designation of caregiver, as recognized by the VA, on a whim. Colella explained why that is a bad idea and the position in which it puts the caregiver.
"A lot of these veterans have mental health illness or TBI and were released from service because they couldn't make sound, coherent decisions. But then they could make all their own choices at the VA," she said. It doesn't make sense.
It also puts caregivers in a tough spot, as they lose their stipend and their virtual support. All caregivers are offered online support, but if a veteran meets the eligibility to warrant a paid caregiver, that caregiver is authorized a stipend and home visits by support personnel. If the couple fights and the veteran removes the caregiver's official designation, that caregiver then has few, if any, resources with which to leave.
With intimate partner violence discussed more frequently at the VA, Colella has been working hard to make sure the programs and education are getting out to caregiver spouses.
"We want it to be helpful for the veteran experiencing it, and we twisted it to include caregiver," she said. She wants the changes set in stone. "Currently, if a caregiver notifies his/her caregiver support coordinator that they are leaving the veteran or home due to intimate partner violence, there is no standard across the VA policy in how long (if at all) a caregiver can continue to receive their stipend."
Some caregivers receive their stipend for 30 days and some for 90 days, depending on their region and who submits their information to the VA. Colella and HH6 want these policies clearly outlined and made universal across the country.
A series of new rules proposed by the VA as a direct result of Colella's work would make those changes. They would add specific, broad protections for domestic and partner violence victims, including giving a 90-day payment grace period for caregivers who report violence or abuse. The proposal, published in the Federal Register, is open for public comment until early May.
Caregivers may not know how to use the resources, or even that they are available. There's no national support system, which could be very helpful in times when offices close for an emergency situation, such as the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Colella and HH6 have asked for a 1-800 number for active-duty spouses to call when offices shut down -- somewhere they can call and get local information and resources, even if it's at an installation level. They need someone who will answer the phone when Family Advocacy Program phones aren't being answered.
Colella wants anyone looking at HH6 to understand that it is more than just support for spouses who want to leave a domestic violence-ridden relationship. "We want these families to stay together; we don't want to be tearing children out of their homes. We do so much more than separating people. We really want these families to stay together and be healthy," she said.
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