By Elizabeth DePompei
Kim Hussey went nine months without hearing her fiancé’s voice, even as she sat next to him every day.
Her future husband, Alex, had stepped on an improvised explosive device while on foot patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Aug. 7, 2012. He lost both legs, most of his left hand and part of his right hand, and sustained a severe traumatic brain injury. Kim wasn’t sure if he’d survive, let alone ever speak again.
So when the Army veteran gradually woke from a coma and uttered his first words, it was “amazing,” Kim recalled. Months of hope had paid off, but it was just the beginning of a very long and daunting road.
At just 20 years old, Kim went from college student to caregiver. That journey began at a hospital in Germany, where she learned on-site from nurses and doctors about Alex’s daily care needs, and continued when the couple returned home two years later. A decade on, Kim says being a caregiver is part of who she is.
“It’s part of who I’ve become,” she said. It used to be all of who she was. Due to his disabilities, Alex needs help with day-to-day activities, including showering, getting dressed, getting in and out of a wheelchair and taking medication. He needs transportation to physical therapy and medical appointments, and he can’t be left alone.
Kim has remained dedicated to caring for her husband since his injury, but about three years ago, she realized how much she was struggling.
“I kind of just fell into this depression of, like, I didn’t really know who I was anymore. I was just a caregiver; I wasn’t anything else,” Kim said. “And it was exhausting.”
It was around that time she learned about education benefits for spouses of veterans who were permanently and totally disabled due to service-connected injuries.
Now, in addition to the daily duties she undertakes as a caregiver, she is also studying human development at Washington State University and dreams of one day working with children and their families.
“Kim’s experience is not uncommon among caregivers,” said National Service Director Jim Marszalek. “Many veteran caregivers forego their personal careers and educational goals, and a lot of times they lose out on education benefits if they don’t use them within the 10-year window of eligibility under the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance program, or Chapter 35.”
It’s no easy road balancing Alex’s constant medical needs and a college course load, but caregiver benefits have helped make it possible. Under the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, Kim has been able to access the help and supports she needs to both care for her husband and rediscover the purpose she felt she had lost. The benefits program, originally created for caregivers of post-9/11 veterans, was expanded to all eras under the MISSION Act of 2018, legislation advocated for by DAV.
“It’s a huge, huge difference, because I am able to go to school,” said Kim. “The benefits that we get from the VA and the education benefits are making it so that I can have a passion outside of my home,” Kim said.
“I get to actually be a person that’s separate from Alex.”
Alex gasps at the idea, a hint of the joker Kim says he’s always been. That humor and the couple’s zest for life have helped them reach new heights—literally.
In 2019, Alex and Kim attended the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic co-presented by DAV and the VA in Snowmass, Colorado. The annual event—known as “Miracles on a Mountainside”—allows disabled veterans to participate in adaptive sports such as skiing, rock climbing and sled hockey. That same year, Alex was awarded the DAV Freedom Award, an award given to veterans who exemplify the spirit of the event.
“DAV’s Winter Sports Clinic is about empowering veterans like Alex to thrive in the face of formidable challenges, and supporting caregivers like Kim is an extension of that mission,” said National Adjutant Marc Burgess. “It’s why we pushed for the expansion of caregiver benefits and why we will continue to fight for them. Kim and Alex show just how game-changing that kind of support can be, both for the veteran and the caregiver.”
Of course, even with robust benefits, life still throws curveballs. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Kim started having trouble finding qualified and available caregivers to come to the house. The problem persists today and sometimes means she has to miss school or take Alex with her to class.
True to their nature, the couple takes it in stride.
“We definitely adapt and overcome,” Kim said. “At the end of the day, we’re just a married couple. And yeah, my life might be a little bit more challenging, but I feel like everybody has their challenges. These just happen to be our challenges.”