Veteran's wife pushes for greater recognition, support for military caregivers

Jorge and Jessica Rodriguez with their daughters, Gabby, left, and Ava, on Thursday, July 5, 2018.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Jorge and Jessica Rodriguez with their daughters, Gabby, left, and Ava, on Thursday, July 5, 2018. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Griswold — The first clue that something was up was the Post-it notes all over Jorge Rodriguez's apartment.

They were on the wall over his desk, on the doorway to his bathroom closet and bedroom, on his bathroom mirror, fridge, apartment door — reminders ranging from due dates for bills, phone numbers, the bank he used, appointments, school test dates, when to do laundry, television show times, the time he needed to report to work.

Then, when Jessica Rodriguez and her then-boyfriend and now-husband moved in together, he would ask her where his clothes were and then if they would be going back to her apartment or his.

"'Well, we live together now, so you're coming here,'" Jessica Rodriguez, 39, of Griswold recalled telling him at the time. "There were some deficits there, but he was so intelligent. He did a very good job of covering them up."

Things got worse. He started forgetting to eat. A surgical technician for the Navy based in Groton, he started over-ordering supplies. He had double vision and severe headaches and couldn't retain information.

"As his abilities declined, I adapted," Jessica Rodriguez said Thursday, sitting next to Jorge, 40, at their dining room table as their daughters, Gabby, 7, and Ava, 3, played in the next room.

The couple have been together for 11 years and married for eight of them.

Jessica Rodriguez quit her job as a nurse in 2011 to become Jorge's caregiver. It can be an isolating experience, she said, because there are barriers to getting out of the house and scheduling time with others.

Jessica Rodriguez, one of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation's Caregiver Fellows for 2017, has been speaking to local government officials about the foundation's Hidden Heroes program that raises awareness and support of military caregivers. The idea is to get towns and cities to offer support to their military caregivers by including them in military appreciation breakfasts, for example, or adding links to resources for them on their websites.

Montville was the first town in Connecticut to sign on, passing a resolution in October 2017 in support of military and veteran caregivers. Salem also joined the program. And New London’s City Council pledged its support last month. Jessica Rodriguez, whose fellowship lasts two years, also is hoping to establish a day to honor military caregivers in Connecticut.

"The biggest component of this is building a community of support. If we have support for our veterans, then it'd be really easy to help support those who care for them," she said.

There are 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers, according to a 2014 RAND study commissioned by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. Advances in medicine and technology have helped bring soldiers home from war, but they’ve returned with serious mental and physical injuries.

Jessica and Jorge Rodriguez met about a year after he returned from a 2005-06 deployment to Iraq. During the deployment, Jorge, a Navy corpsman attached to a Marine unit, was exposed to two improvised explosive device, or IED, blasts that left him with hearing loss, a closed-skull traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other ailments. He served 10 years in the military.

Aside from helping with his daily care routine, Jessica Rodriguez handles her husband's medical appointments, manages his medication, helps him fill out paperwork and gather the necessary medical documentation for accessing needed therapies and assistance such as VA benefits. She and their two daughters moved into a hotel for three months while Jorge Rodriguez was receiving care at the Shepherd Center, a private hospital in Atlanta that specializes in spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation.

She texts him reminders and leaves notes for him throughout the house like the one on the front door that says “Before you leave do you have ....,” and proceeds to list items like his hearing aids, phone, glasses and keys, and finally asks “Did you kiss your wife? :)”

“Everything is a note,” Jorge Rodriguez said. “If not, she texts me.”

If he has to go somewhere, there’s two things he relies on, “GPS and her,” he said. “She’s my other half.”

But he knows it takes a toll on her.

“It’s too much stuff that she has to deal with,” he said. “My stuff. The girls’ stuff. I think it’s hard sometimes.”

They’ve explained to their daughters that their dad has a “boo-boo” inside his brain that causes him to have headaches at times, and can make him upset or sleepy or forget things.

Through various therapies and with the help of family and others, Jorge Rodriguez has improved over the years.

“We’re at prompting, which is good,” Jessica Rodriguez said. “It’s a long way from where we came.”

Even his daughters will prompt him. Gabby will tell him it's time to eat. Ava will see him hurrying around the house getting ready for an appointment and will lay out his shoes for him.

“In a way, our family are all caregivers,” Jessica Rodriguez said.

j.bergman@theday.com

Jessica Rodriguez has notes posted around the house for her husband, Jorge, on Thursday, July 5, 2018. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Jessica Rodriguez has notes posted around the house for her husband, Jorge, on Thursday, July 5, 2018. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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