Jennifer Washam wanted to be a teacher ever since she was a little girl, but life circumstances took her on a different path — until now.
The University of North Texas student is a caregiver for her husband, Joe, who medically retired from the Army after being wounded in a blast while in Baghdad, Iraq. The unorthodox tale of her experience as a military spouse started more than 15 years ago when the couple began dating right before he was due to deploy.
“We were dating at the time and then he was wounded; I was caring for him, we got married and then he was medically retired, so my military spouse journey is not the typical story,” she said.
She suddenly found herself in a new role within the relationship, different from that of girlfriend or wife. And when she reflects back to those initial years, Washam describes a feeling of “crippling anxiety” that made her hesitant to even consider what her own goals for life might be. But, after some encouragement from her husband, she decided to go back to college and finish a childhood dream that was anything but forgotten.
“I think it took a lot if encouragement from others to actually do it. I had a lot of doubts and uncertainty about going back to school, and I tried to talk myself out of it. I was scared; I felt like it was too late, like it was selfish because I needed to be mom and I needed to be wife, but honestly my husband was probably my biggest cheerleader — even indirectly. He believed in me for a long time before I believed in me. He would kind of urge me to go back and I would resist and he would push and push, and finally I just gave in. He knew me to a point that he knew I couldn’t just dive right in. He said just take one class, and I did but I felt like I wasn’t doing enough,” she said.
Washam decided to pursue a Bachelor of Science in interdisciplinary studies so that she could work with elementary-aged students, with a focus on grades one to three.
“ … I wanted to teach elementary since as long as I can remember — since I was an elementary kid playing teacher and it just kind of stuck and I’ve always had a passion for learning and teaching and really enjoy interacting with children and just watching them grow,” she explained.
And it wasn’t just the home front support that has kept her pushing to graduation day. Washam learned about a scholarship program through Hope For The Warriors that eases the financial burdens associated with college and certification fees. She applied for the “Restoring Self” scholarship for two semesters and was awarded.
She says it isn’t just the monetary assistance from Hope For The Warriors that stands out, but also the organization’s support of military family members.
“The financial assistance is awesome — books are outrageous, soon I’ll have my certification exams and each test has a separate cost — I think one of the biggest things I’ve gotten from the scholarship is it feels really great to know someone sees my passion and my goals and wants to celebrate me and my efforts,” she said. “Organizations like this that find it important to fund goals or hobbies or things like that to help military families do the things that help them to heal and move forward, I’m just really grateful that exists.”
Robin Kelleher, president and CEO of Hope For The Warriors, cofounded the organization at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in 2006. She says supporting the education of caregivers was one of their first programs.
“When we saw the time that it takes to be a good caregiver and what you have to give up in order to be a good caregiver, a lot of times that is an education. So, there were several different components there: one, we wanted to ensure that military wives who potentially had started an education during deployments and things like that and then became caregivers that they would have the opportunity to go back to that [an education]. The other part was that many of those caregivers would then become the financial lead in the family, and so required more education so they could properly take care of the family,” Kelleher said.
Hope For The Warriors also wanted to help with caregiver morale by giving them a sense of independence to do what they needed to do, she adds. The organization recently announced distribution of 13 military spouse and caregiver scholarships totaling $27,500. The 2019 fall semester marks the largest class of recipients since the program’s inception, according to a press release.
Kelleher hopes the ongoing scholarship program, in addition to other services offered by Hope For The Warriors, will encourage caregivers to continue “kicking the doors down on life’s obstacles.”
“Take a step out and look at what you really do do and how strong you really are,” she said “When you realize how valuable you are, then maybe you will think ‘I should pursue an education’ or ‘I should go outside for a run’ because the stronger I am, the better my family is going to be.”
Washam understands that her fellow caregivers likely feel very much like she did years ago — “a duty to be home and to be there whenever I was needed,” but she has learned that it is vital to take a chance on yourself despite any circumstances you may be facing.
“I would just say take a risk, take a risk and find something that’s important to you. Find people who are going to push you and lift you up. Take a risk in yourself. You really just have to jump in and lean on the people around you,” she said.