Rob Fidler joined the Army in his teens, and every time the military found itself in combat, he was part of it. Panama, Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan — he spent his life jumping out of airplanes and landing in one war zone after another.
It took a toll.
“He’s been in combat since the late ’80s,” said his wife, Liz Hunt. “There have been a lot of injuries, large and small. He may have had a major traumatic brain injury years ago.
“The last three years, it’s gotten progressively worse — the migraines, surgery to fuse his neck, stabbing pains in his arms and legs …”
Last November, Fidler was medically retired from the service after ending his career at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“Three years ago, all he wanted to know was what was wrong with him,” Hunt said. “They still can’t tell him.”
Some doctors believe it might have started with a stroke, but they don’t know for certain.
Now the DuPont couple and their two sons, 7-year-old Skyler and 4-year-old Sydney, are trying to make a normal life.
It hasn’t been easy.
“We deal with a lot,” Hunt said. “The hardest thing might be that Rob is in pain every day. It’s hard for the kids to understand. We’ll plan something fun and Dad has to go to the ER.
“I play with the kids, and we have a lot of movie nights at home. I think Rob is happiest sitting on a couch with a boy on each side of him, watching a kids’ movie.”
Hunt was already a mother and wife before she became a caregiver — seven days a week, 24 hours a day. In that way, she is like a lot of women at JBLM.
A military family life counselor began a monthly meeting for caregivers, and Hunt was among those who attended the first session.
“That first time, we could not shut up,” Hunt said of the gathered caregivers. “We compared stories, shared resources, talked about all that was involved. The bottom line? If you need help — financial, emotional, physical — you have to seek it out.
“It’s an isolating role. It was good knowing I wasn’t alone.”
More and more, the 44-year-old Hunt found herself reaching out to other caregivers, other organizations. She volunteered at the Intel DuPont Community Garden, and takes the boys with her when she can. The garden helps stocks food banks throughout Puget Sound.
“It’s my outlet,” Hunt said.
Late in February, she added a new title to her growing list of credentials. She was named the Washington state fellow for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, a national organization dedicated to raising awareness and support for military caregivers.
“Later this year, we’re going to have a summit in Washington, D.C., and meet with congressional and Senate leaders,” Hunt said. “I’m thrilled to be a voice for caregivers.
“There’s a reason we’re called ‘hidden heroes.’ We advocate for the people we care for, but there may be help we need, too.”
It’s a daunting role, being the caregiver to a man in his mid-40s who is used to physical challenges but suddenly finds himself facing a lifetime of pain and disability.
Fidler’s migraines are completely debilitating; walking down the stairs at home, he’s often frozen by sudden pain.
“We have two kayaks we’re going to try to use this summer, and on his good days, Rob can enjoy the kids and family life,” Hunt said. “I do wonder what we’ll be doing in 10 years. I’ve been told there will be more decline over time.”
More and more, she knows she will need to use her resources, including her sons.
“They’ll be able to help their dad as they get a little older,” Hunt said. “The one thing I encourage others to do is seek out caregiver services and resources. ... There is help out there, and all of us need it.”