When talking about a service member's transition to a veteran, the conversation rarely includes the role of their caregiver. In many cases, their caregiver is a spouse or family member. When we spoke with Army Veteran Marcus Ziegler about how Warriors & Quiet Waters (WQW) impacted his life, we knew his wife and caregiver, Susan Ziegler, also had an extraordinary story to share. Often referenced as the "hidden heroes" who help their veterans through the residual effects of war, caregivers play a critical role in helping service members transition. Here's more on Susan's role as a caregiver and how she found community in WQW.
WQW: When did you become a caregiver?
Susan: When my husband Marc was seriously wounded in an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) attack in Afghanistan on 19 September 2011. The Stryker he was in was hit by an IED. All four soldiers survived the attack, but the Stryker hull was breached, and all four soldiers sustained wounds of varying degrees.
WQW: What are you most proud of being a caregiver?
Susan: Of being able to be here for my husband-warrior. Probably the biggest challenge for Marcus is that he sustained a moderate Traumatic Brain Injury, among multiple other injuries, and he lost the security of being able to rely on his own memory when he was wounded. He also deals with Post-Traumatic Stress and going from “Badass Cavalry Scout” to “What the hell did I have for breakfast?” in the blink of an eye at 30 years old sucked.
WQW: What is the most challenging part of being a caregiver?
Susan: It’s trying to find the balance of wife and caregiver. Doing what is necessary for my warrior such as advocating for him to his medical providers while also trying not to exclude him from the conversation, addressing additional care that he needs when new things present themselves while being sensitive to the fact that he still struggles with being medically retired from the most meaningful job he ever had, and facing the multiple healthcare systems he’s been involved with and feeling very alone once he was out of the Army.
WQW: Did WQW play a role in helping to navigate these challenges?
Susan: As a military caregiver in a largely civilian world, the need for community is great, and I found it at WQW.
WQW: What’s your favorite part about being in the military community?
Susan: It’s the closeness and security I feel with our military friends and family. We speak our own language that many civilians have never heard. Sometimes, we can do a big part of a conversation in acronyms, and no one around can eavesdrop!
WQW: What would you say to another caregiver in a similar situation as you?
Susan: Put the oxygen mask on yourself first. One thing I didn’t really listen to until volunteering on a WQW Caregiver FX is that you can’t be an effective caregiver to your Warrior unless you are first caring for yourself. I used to think that self-care was actually selfish and that I had to give all of myself to others until I hit a point of burnout and I had nothing left to give. I had to take time to also take care of myself. I still struggle with making time for myself, but it is critical in being capable of caring for your Warrior.
WQW: If a fellow caregiver was on the fence about whether or not to apply to participate in a WQW program, what would you tell them?
Susan: Apply. Any concerns you have about your Warrior’s care while you are gone can be discussed with WQW. They’ll help you get squared away so you can go to Quiet Waters Ranch and be cared for, for a change.
WQW: What is special about fly fishing?
Susan: It requires a lot of focus, at least for me, so it helps me get out of my own head and relax. Places that are good for fly fishing are pretty darn beautiful, so getting outside, being on, in, or near the water; seeing and feeling the fish eat; landing or losing the fish — it’s all just wonderful.
WQW: What is your favorite part about being in the WQW Family?
Susan: Everything. Seriously. WQW quite literally saved my husband from the darkness and isolation that he was going deeper and deeper into. Marc’s first FX changed his life. He called me from Quiet Waters Ranch and sounded so different, so joyful, so at peace, so alive again that I couldn’t believe it.
WQW: What is a moment with WQW you’ll never forget?
Susan: Marc’s first FX was a Solo FX in May of 2017. It was two months before he was scheduled to have major back surgery to replace three discs and put in a lot of hardware, and I was terrified that he would stumble, fall, or overdo it while he was away from me and end up in a hospital in Montana. He was excited about going to WQW, and at that time, he was never excited about anything, so I wanted him to go. During the FX, Sergeant Mac took a picture that will forever embody the spirit of WQW for me. Marc’s Companion Brian is at the top of the riverbank leaning down with his arm stretched out pulling Marc up, because Marc couldn’t make it up from the bottom of the riverbank on his own. That’s what WQW means to me. They are the hand reaching out to help, and all one has to do is reach back and accept the help.
Want to make a difference in the lives of military families like the Zieglers? You can donate online here or by mail here.