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‘Hidden Heroes’ Care for Children Who Are Wounded Warriors

For most of us, Veterans Day brings parades and one-day sales. However, more than 5.5 million Americans spend every day honoring a veteran by providing hands-on emotional and physical care.

Army veteran Austin Fretz and his mother, Bridget Klyn

Army veteran Austin Fretz and his mother, Bridget Klyn

“Hidden heroes” is the name given those caregivers by a Rand Corporation study. While all veterans’ caregivers carry a burden, the study found that the 1.1 million assisting post-9/11 military shoulder a particularly difficult task because many of these young vets suffer from “invisible” combat wounds. Nearly two-thirds have mental health or substance use disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety, and one-fifth have traumatic brain injuries. That’s often in addition to debilitating physical injuries. While many of those caregivers are spouses or siblings, a significant number are parents.

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Among those hidden heroes is Bridget Klyn, 49, of Bloomington, Ind. She knew immediately that something was wrong when her son, Austin Fretz, returned home in 2010 after serving four years in the Army infantry, including two tours in Iraq. Despite the joyous homecoming, Klyn said, “Even though physically he seemed fine, he was totally different from the gentle person I knew before. After the adrenaline rush of being home wore off, he was very angry and threatened to kill me and my dogs and would not come out of his room.”

Fretz had suffered a brain injury when a bomb destroyed his Humvee on his first tour, but he received no treatment. Worried about his changed behavior, Klyn insisted that her son be evaluated at a local Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital. He was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD, but Klyn says the only treatment offered was sleeping pills. Soon Fretz started “self-medicating” with alcohol, and in September 2011 he suffered a horrific car accident when his soft-top convertible flipped over several times.

Her son was on life support for weeks, yet Klyn refused to stop treatment despite doctors’ suggestions. The next two years were a nightmare of treatment in five hospitals in three different states, with Fretz finally being sent to a rehab facility 90 minutes from his home. Klyn visited daily, juggling her job as a TSA screener. While Fretz was able to regain some basic functions, his improvement stalled at the rehab facility. His weight dropped to 150 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame.

“No one wanted to deal with him, and the situation was horrible, so I brought him home,” Klyn said. “I had to quit my job and I didn’t know how we were going to pay our bills. All that mattered was my son getting well and being able to go to the bathroom, not being in Depends and eating food that’s not pureed and being able to concentrate and not be angry.”

Since January 2013, Klyn has cared for her son, now 31. With her daily assistance and the help of several veterans groups, he slowly began to improve. A major breakthrough came last August when the Independence Fund paid for monthlong treatment in a hyperbaric oxygen treatment in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Klyn rejoices in every improvement, from Fretz being able to tie his own shoes to staying focused on a task. With some assistance, he has been able to go fishing, horseback riding, attend speech therapy and improve his concentration. Most important, his mood is greatly improved. She hopes that another treatment in Myrtle Beach next year will help accelerate his progress.

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Klyn admits that caregiving has its ups and downs, both emotionally and physically. But groups such as Hope for the Warriors provide respite care so she can have some time for herself.

“It has not been easy, and we still have our difficult moments,” says Klyn. “But I would do it all over. I am so thankful I’ve got my son today because not every mother gets two chances to raise their child all over again.”

Mary W. Quigley’s blog, Mothering21, tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond.

Photo: Courtesy of Bridget Klyn

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