Caregiver Finds Camaraderie as Hearts of Valor Group Leader
Cristy Kirwin’s husband, Army Sgt. Walter “Tom” Kirwin, spent more than 20 years serving his country. First, in the late 1980s in the Army National Guard, then in the Army beginning in 1993. But by 2009, injuries sustained during IED blasts and combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan began to take their toll. These injuries included a broken tailbone, dislocated shoulder which required reconstructive surgery, an injured back as well as a traumatic brain injury.
He tried to keep serving, but his medical retirement was finalized in 2012. The change was not easy for the Kirwin family.
Military life was integral to the family—two of their sons entered the Army. Their oldest son, Joe, now a veteran, was deployed to Iraq when his dad was in Afghanistan. Their son, Alex, just returned from this year from being stationed in Korea. He is now stationed in South Carolina.
“We had been a military family for 26 years, so it was really hard to transition to civilian life,” Cristy said. “You become very isolated.”
Cristy was working as a paralegal when she realized that Tom’s injuries had advanced to the point that he would need a fulltime caregiver. Having been a caregiver to her father for years, Cristy understood the commitment. She quit her job and her life became even more isolated.
That would change in 2014 after her sister, also a military spouse and caregiver, invited Cristy to a Hearts of Valor meeting. Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor program supports caregivers nationwide through facilitating training for group leaders, and once a year provides an all-expenses paid retreat for a group of caregivers.
”Back in 2013 when my husband got out, it was very scary, because we didn’t have that support,” Cristy said. “And now as part of Hearts of Valor I have that. I have my people.”
Unfortunately, the group stopped meeting because they had no leader. Cristy decided to apply. She has led the Clarksville, Tennessee support group since 2015. Once a year they host a party for the whole families with a focus on the kids, because she said, “our kids suffer too.”
“Our daughter was just going into junior high when her dad was coming out of the military,” Cristy said. “She grew up on a military post and all of the sudden was living in the civilian world. And if her dad had an episode, she didn’t have anyone to talk to.”
She volunteers for other Operation Homefront programs as a way of giving back. The nonprofit has helped them in their time of need, not just through Hearts of Valor, but also Back-to-School Brigades (BTSB) and Holiday Toy Drives.
“I like the fact I’m helping people and with Operation Homefront when we do the BTSB I just love to see the kids’ faces. We’ve been there. We’ve had to use Operation Homefront programs so to give back makes me feel really good.”
Cristy wants donors to Operation Homefront to know that without them she and other caregivers she knows would feel isolated and alone. She is currently working again thanks to a partnership between Operation Homefront and Flagstar Bank, which hired Kirwin to work from home. She has also received her master’s degree in criminal justice.
“Thank you,” she said. “Because without the donors so many other people would not be able to experience the camaraderie, and the hope that we get from Operation Homefront and Hearts of Valor. Without the donors, a lot of people would be trying to navigate through this new world by themselves and it can become a very lonely place and to have that support is just amazing.”