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Toll on military spouse more subtle
February 19,2006
CHRIS MAZZOLINI 
DAILY NEWS STAFF

It’s a fear shared by all military spouses: that their loved one has been injured in war, and life will never be the same again. It’s an ordeal that leads to a hospital, perhaps Landstuhl in Germany or Bethesda in Maryland, where doctors work to reconstruct limbs and patch up wounds.

There’s surgery, and more surgery. Eventually, that Marine comes home.

The toll such an odyssey takes on a Marine is obvious. The one it takes on the spouse is more subtle. Their pain doesn’t come from missing limbs or broken bones, but it’s just as real.

Now a new program — the Wounded Warriors Spouses’ Support Group — gives spouses of injured Marines and sailors a chance to discuss their questions and pain with each other.

Meeting the third Wednesday of each month at Camp Lejeune, the group has a twofold mission, said group co-founder Shannon Maxwell: to inform families about where they can get help and to act as a support group, a safe place to share feelings.

“I want them to know that they are not alone,” Maxwell said.

Maxwell has been there. Her husband, Lt. Col. Tim Maxwell, was wounded severely in 2004 when a bomb exploded near his tent in Iraq and shrapnel lodged in his head. The damage to his brain left him facing a long road of rehabilitation.

While Maxwell’s recovery has been remarkable — he’s still an active-duty Marine — it does not mean it was not also hard for his wife, who says the injuries forced her to change her role.

“You become the caregiver,” Maxwell said. “Your role as a spouse changes. You go through a huge range of emotion, from pride to times when you feel all alone.”

It’s those lonely times that led Maxwell to seek out other wives whose husbands were wounded in war. She found, among others, Becky Klepper.

Klepper’s husband, Sgt. Karl Klepper, was wounded in Iraq in September. His humvee hit a roadside bomb near Karmah and flipped into a drainage ditch, pinning him under water by his left ankle. The humvee’s weight crushed the bones.

Since that day, he’s had seven surgeries on his ankle. There are two plates and 16 screws in the joint. He only recently got off his crutches.

Discussing her situation with women like Maxwell and the group’s other founder, Alison Sturla, has helped Becky Klepper get through the difficult time since her husband’s injury.

“It kind of makes it easier,” Klepper said. “There’s strength in numbers. When I talk to Shannon or Alison I can say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been there,’ and they understand. We’ve gotten closeness and comfort from each other. Not only information, but its given us guidance and self-esteem.”

‘If you build it…’

The more they talked, the more Maxwell and the others realized they needed something more structured to reach out to other spouses. So the monthly meetings held aboard the base will be partly informational, featuring presentations about where wounded Marines and their families can find benefits and resources to help them.

During Wednesday’s meeting, the group had Col. Paul Bennett from Quantico, Va., in to discuss the Traumatic Injury Protection Under Service members’ Group Life Insurance (TSGLI) — a new program that can give wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as much as $100,000 to help ease their burdens.

Maxwell and Klepper said that in the days following their husbands’ injuries, the amount of information concerning benefits can become overwhelming. So the informational portions are a way to spread the important information while giving folks time to catch their collective breath.

“It comes at a time when the focus has to be taking care of your husband,” Maxwell said. “You’re processing an enormous amount of information.

“There was a lot of information coming in, resources are coming at you so quickly, ” she added, “that you just need someone to talk to.”

The other part of the meeting is private, time for just the spouses to discuss things. Even Lt. Gen. James Amos, the commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force who attended Wednesday, left.

“We close the door just to the spouses so they have a safe, non-threatening environment, a place they can let their hair down,” Maxwell said. “I’d like to see it become just a comfortable setting for these spouses, a place they can come in their hour of need.”

Amos offered the group encouraging words during the meeting, saying their work would help locate those who may need help coping with a spouse’s injury.

“The effort you are undertaking here is critical,” Amos said. “It’s something we knew we needed, but we hadn’t gotten there yet. It’s like if you build it, they will come. In the Jacksonville area, there is a significant number of spouses just like you, and I don’t know where they are.”

Maxwell praised the Marine Corps for its support.

“The Marine Corps is a family, it’s an extended family,” she said. “The fact is that when we get the call, there are people standing right behind us; and that’s an incredible feeling. It lifts you up and allows you to get through it.”

Klepper said she hopes the idea of a spouse support group spreads to other military bases.

“There may be one other woman out there that I can give something to make her life or her husband’s life a lot easier,” said Klepper. “I hope, honestly, this will become a nationwide, uniform-service wide group, so no wife or husband has to go through this by themselves.”

Contact staff writer Chris Mazzolini at cmazzolini@freedomenc.com or 353-1171, ext. 229.