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Military caregivers serve and sacrifice for severely injured veterans

June 21st, 2021

There are mornings when all Christina Ott wants is to sleep in. To allow her mind and body to recover from the round-the-clock care she gives her adult son, John Thomas Doody. Some days are longer than others; too many begin at 5 a.m.

Despite help from part-time aides who come to her home in Riverview, southeast of Tampa, Fla., she worries. Constantly. Even before COVID-19, she stressed about J.T.’s health and safety. But no matter how long the days or how fatigued she feels the next, she is her son’s primary caregiver.

And it is the most important job in their lives.

In 2007, J.T. deployed with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment to Fallujah, Iraq. Her son would make it home, Ott knew, either whole or in a body bag. Three months into the deployment, in March, J.T. was seriously wounded in the right leg. After recovering in San Diego, he turned his attention towards becoming an attorney.

The Purple Heart injury didn’t change much in Ott’s life. She still lived in Idaho Falls, Idaho, working full-time as a marketing manager at Experian.

The severity of J.T.’s physical and psychological injuries led him down a rabbit hole of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He woke up in the middle of the night with cold sweats, panting, seeing rounds kick up the dirt around him. Combat missions replayed in his thoughts.

By 2008, what aspirations J.T. had for himself in the legal profession were suddenly, and violently, eviscerated.

“He had several strokes and then suffered from anoxic brain damage, which is a lack of oxygen to the brain,” Ott explained about the infection from a superbug known as Iraqibacter. What went undetected for months was now assaulting her son’s heart and brain.

J.T. spent the next five months at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Fla. For a time, on life support and comatose.

In a 2014 nationwide study commissioned by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation about the state of military caregiving, the nonpartisan RAND Corporation estimated that of the 5.5 million military caregivers in the United States, “1.1 million (19.6 percent) care for post-9/11 veterans.” A quarter of post 9/11 military caregivers, researchers found, are parents.

In March 2011, an unexpected phone call brought life to a halt for George and Linda Ross, whose son, Jason, was severely injured in Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device. Doctors amputated Jason’s legs at the pelvis. He battled infections. When word reached the Ross’ in Livermore, Calif., George remembers telling his wife, “Our lives are over as we know it. This is a new change for us.”

Change came quickly. George gave up a full-time job offer to stay with Jason at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. The couple relied on Linda’s income, and when money got tight, they tapped into their savings and retirement accounts.

After Jason moved in with his parents, freedoms they once enjoyed without so much as a second thought — going to the movies or taking a vacation or visiting their three other sons and their families — all but lost to the demands of caregiving.

In 2015, George and Linda, and Jason and his two daughters, moved into a specially adapted smart home. The two-and-a-half-acre mortgage-free home in Fallbrook, Calif., was donated by the Gary Sinise Foundation.

While the home improved Jason’s independence and quality of life, Linda and George
found it exceedingly complicated to find respite during the day. Linda explained how Jason’s injuries require daily wound care, a not so simple process like hiring the right people suited for the job. “They need to have the medical information, not necessarily a nurse, but the medical information as to how to do his wound care, and that’s huge.”

Retired Marine Jason Ross and his two daughters, Stacy and Jackie, inside the specially adapted smart home donated by the Gary Sinise Foundation.

Among the RAND study’s troubling findings is the relationship between the burden of caregiving and depression. For Ott, depression is a constant; caring for J.T., confined to a wheelchair, brain-injured, and a quadriplegic, takes its toll. “I can’t have a day off. I can’t have a night off. This is my life is taking care of him because that’s what I do.”

“It’s a continuous fight to keep him well but to also keep me well. And a big part of that has to do with the mental attitude that I have, in that, I have to carry on with J.T., because J.T. he is a Pisces, and he has this uncanny ability to feel other people’s emotions, and so I really have to keep myself in check to keep him happy.”

She struggles to put on a happy face to meet that expectation. “It is sad what happened and what our lives look like today, it’s very sad. What could’ve been but didn’t happen.”

“It took me years to accept that this is the new J.T. and I love him every bit as much as I loved the old J.T.”

​Yet even J.T.’s brain injury couldn’t erase some combat memories, Ott said with reservation. The moral injury from a traumatic event: the order to shoot and kill Iraqi children armed with weapons and explosives.

J.T.’s days, as they were in the Marine Corps, are meticulously regimented. A massage therapist works with him on Mondays. He sees a physical trainer on Tuesdays and Thursdays who puts him through his paces, pushing him through pain, resurrecting a dormant Marine spirit. On Wednesdays, a physical therapist comes to the house to stretch his body.

And since recovering from a brain infection that nearly killed him, he paints — every week.

“It brings out his creative side,” Ott said. “I think that he feels like it gives him the biggest sense of accomplishment like he did something, and he loves to gift them to people.”

The single mother quarterbacks it all. She is also her son’s consigliere when new caregiving aides are introduced. He can be a tough critic, often with a colorful sense of humor. “One time we had a new aide, and J.T. made up this whole story about how a bunch of Winn-Dixie (grocery chain in Florida and the Gulf States) employees had come into his room and tied him up,” Ott said. Only J.T. has never been to a Winn-Dixie.

It’s another preposterous story, J.T. being J.T. “He makes things up just to screw with people.”

J.T. is currently in the application process for a specially adapted smart home. Ott hopes they’ll move to Boerne, north of San Antonio, to be closer to family. She said, “If he can do things like turn on his own TV, turn on his lights, things like that, it will just make him feel more independent.”

Christina Ott and her son, J.T., at their home near Tampa, Florida.

Ott still worries about her son. Fully vaccinated, they’re no longer homebound. Each night before going to bed, she asks her son, “How was your day, hun?” to which he replies, “I got to spend it with my best friend again.” When J.T. asks his mother about her day, Ott smiles, looks him in the eyes, and answers, “I got to spend it with my best friend again.”

Tomorrow brings a new day.

Written by Brandon Black