Caregiver Jennifer Washam was forced to put her education on hold when her husband, U.S. Army Sergeant Joe Washam, was severely wounded in a blast while on patrol in the streets of Baghdad, Iraq. After being medically evacuated from country, he spent over 20 months recovering in a medical center in Texas. Years after navigating the family’s new normal and her role as a caregiver, Jennifer is now able to return to college to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a teacher. Upon the completion of her program in Spring 2020, she will be certified to teach early childhood through sixth grade, with hopes of focusing on children in second or third grade.
“I have been waiting a long time to start my career because life led me on a path that was unexpected, but I am eager to make a positive impact on the children who enter my classroom and to help them find a love of learning,” said Washam.
Jennifer was a Fall 2018 Hope For The Warriors Spouse and Caregiver Scholarship winner of $1,000 for having an outstanding essay featured below.
“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.” – Albert Einstein
To learn from my past, I have often thought about my actions following that dreaded phone call. At only twenty years old, I made decisions that forced me far from my comfort zone and required that I draw on support from loved ones.
Although initial details were scarce, we knew my fiancé, Joe, would be flown back to the United States immediately to receive care he critically needed after a blast on the streets of Baghdad. I did not know the severity of his injuries, but I knew I needed to be wherever the Army sent him when he arrived stateside. With my father by my side, I traveled hours from home to meet my fiancé at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio, Texas.
I’m unsure anyone could prepare themselves to see someone they love wounded as severely as I found Joe. Images are permanently etched in my memory. I entered the BAMC Burn Center’s ICU to find Joe unconscious and entirely dependent on a team of medical professionals and complicated machines to ensure he did not succumb to his extensive injuries. A massive explosion had scorched forty percent of his body. His face was completely burned, hardly recognizable. His hands were bright with blood, and the only skin left behind encircled his soot-stained fingernails. Deep incisions traveling from his fingers past his elbow were made to release extreme pressure and swelling caused by third-degree burns. My strong soldier had become fully dependent on others in an instant, and I knew I had no intentions of letting him navigate his recovery alone. In this moment, nothing mattered as much as being by his side.
Transitioning into the role of Joe’s caregiver meant I needed to leave the hospital and return home briefly. I made arrangements to transfer my job to San Antonio and packed up necessities from my childhood home. I wished to return to the hospital immediately but was committed to completing my last classes and exams for the spring semester at a local community college. If I could have asked him for advice, Joe would have insisted I stay and finish because education is important to both of us. After my final exams were complete, I knew my progress toward my dream of becoming an elementary teacher would have to be put on hold because caring for Joe was my new priority. I did not know how or when I would resume classes, but I had faith I would reach my goal even if it didn’t happen in the time I had planned.
I kept a journal throughout this time, and a recurring theme was my reliance on family and friends. They were there to cry with, talk to, and hug. They pulled me through my hardest days. In adverse situations, it can be difficult to find strength. Relationships with others became the backbone of my emotional survival, and I would encourage anyone to cling to those willing to stand beside them through challenging times.
Joe awoke from his two-week medically induced coma just before I returned to San Antonio. While I was away, he had endured numerous surgeries, including skin grafts which left his body marked by additional wounds and eventual scars. My role as a caregiver officially began in the burn unit’s ICU as I learned a variety of medical terms and how to bandage burned fingers. I encouraged him to push through pain as he learned to feed himself again and cheered him on as physical therapists helped him take his first steps after weeks of lying in a hospital bed. These tasks may not seem significant, but every action came with tremendous pain for Joe. Possibly the hardest challenge was facing a man who was angry he had returned home broken. He was also filled with guilt knowing he had survived the explosion, while others from his unit had not. In these moments I held on to hope that despite the mountain of obstacles ahead, wounds would heal, and we would discover a way to move forward with our life together.
Joe required care in the ICU for a month before being transferred to a regular room in the burn unit. He was healing but still had a long road ahead. I spent my days working at my part-time job and every other moment at the hospital. At Joe’s request, I took responsibility for managing most of his wound care. Burns are excruciating, and the process of caring for them is agonizing. I vividly remember us standing face to face, crying together, as I scrubbed his burned cheeks, a necessary step in the healing process. We grew closer to one another in the hospital, and I learned what it meant to be strong even when circumstances were unimaginably difficult.
Our time in San Antonio was a challenge, but eventually, I saw hope return in Joe’s eyes. Six months after I answered that life-changing call, we were married across the street from the very hospital where Joe was recovering surrounded by family and friends. He would spend twenty months receiving inpatient and outpatient care before we could return home, but slowly we began to consider life after the hospital.
A catastrophic event has the power to break a person’s spirit. For a while, I lost hope and belief that I would ever become a teacher. I took classes here and there, trying to reignite my passion, but anxiety and doubt overtook me. We started a family, and I felt comfortable being a mom; caring for others comes easily to me. Time was passing and returning to college felt intimidating. I had been away from the classroom for a decade. Then, our son began Kindergarten, and I became a frequent volunteer at his school. My desire to teach returned as I was surrounded by children whose eyes lit up when I read to them and who offered grateful hugs after I helped them solve math problems. I belong in a classroom. My caregiving days are not over; I still have many lives to nurture and impact.
If I look back on my yesterdays, I am certain they influenced the way I approach my decisions today. Since our trying stay at the hospital, I have become a mother, an involved community member, and have finally begun to pursue my dream of teaching again. To get to this point I was patient, knowing when the time was right, I would have another opportunity. I was once fearful to begin where I left off and wondered if I could successfully balance the many roles I now hold. I am proud to say I am thriving as a student and still attend to the variety of responsibilities I have taken on. I am no longer concerned about the length of time it has taken to get back on track because I know the road I have been on has given me the willpower to finish what I started years ago.
My passion for learning and teaching others is strong and financial need is the only factor jeopardizing completion of my goal. This scholarship would help ensure nothing keeps me from earning my degree. My persistence in spite of adversity is fueled by the memory of my husband and how resilient he was in the moments when it would have been easier to quit. I look forward to becoming a model of good character and hard work for my future students just as Joe has been for me. The thought of influencing the lives of children and helping them discover a love of learning motivates me. This scholarship will have a lasting impact long after my graduation date.
The phone call that brought me to my knees and filled my heart with uncertainty and fear proved to be the beginning of a journey that would build my confidence, strength, and hope. Without these experiences, I would have been a successful teacher, but my perspective has been forever changed by the unique path in which I am approaching my goals. My journey has not only given me hope for a successful future for myself but the assurance that I will impact many lives once I begin my professional career. My story has taught me to be courageous, determined, and how important relationships are. These are all things I intend to express in my teaching. I look forward to encouraging my students to “learn from yesterday, live for today, and hope for tomorrow.”