Receiving life-changing support
Courtesy Brittany Zurn
Childhood sweethearts Aaron and Brittany Zurn met when he was 13 and she was 11—they began dating three years later. Eventually, they married and had three children as Aaron joined the Marines, working up to become part of the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations, an elite position that requited a seven-month trial period with strenuous physical and mental testing.
Two weeks after the couple’s third child was born, Aaron was deployed to Afghanistan, where he communicated with Brittany daily. So when he went four days without calling or texting in 2014, she knew something was wrong. Then, when Aaron finally reached Brittany, his call left more questions than answers. “He told me he fell from a helicopter and hurt his shoulder and head,” she recalls. “He was heavily medicated and he couldn’t give me much more detail than that.” It turned out that not only did Aaron have a TBI from his fall, but his mental capacity was diminished to that of a 13-year-old and he was suffering from severe PTSD.
An added insult to injury was the financial burden the couple faced as a result of Aaron’s inability to continue serving in the special forces. Aaron’s paycheck was cut in half suddenly, while their expenses remained the same. “When Aaron was injured, Hope for the Warriors was the first assistance check I received,” Brittany recalls.
While it has been a long road for Aaron, Brittany’s life has been turned upside down as well. “I went from a stay-at-home mom taking my kids to the park to becoming a caregiver for my husband,” she says. She now spends three or four days a week taking Aaron to doctors appointments at the VA and hours on the phone with doctors and insurance companies. “I feel like his assistant now,” she says.
For Brittany, the hardest part of Aaron’s injury is the loss of their life-long relationship. “I’ve loved him over half my life,” she says. “Not having the relationship that we had before the injury is like a death, only when someone passes you can heal. With a brain injury, it’s a shadow of what was.”
In an effort to become the healthiest version of herself possible during this trying time, Brittany began going to therapy. “My therapist told me, ‘You’re surviving the loss of your husband, and now you have to get to know this new man.’ It put it in perspective for me,” she says. With the aid of a scholarship from of Hope for the Warriors, Brittany returned to college, earned her bachelor’s degree, and began working full time.
Brittany’s commitment to using her family’s tragedy to help others has proven helpful to her own healing. She offers words of wisdom for those who now stand in her shoes searching for hope. “You’ll go through a time of thinking you can do it all on your own—but take the help,” she says. “Join the support group. Keep doing things for yourself, still shower and get ready every day. Make sure your family fully understands and gets involved as well.”
In the future, Brittany hopes to continue advocating for veterans and invisible injuries like the one her husband suffered. “There’s never enough we can say to thank service members. Traumatic brain injury and PTSD need to have more recognition,” she says. “My hope is that in the future we can find a new normal with a new label that isn’t ‘wounded’ or ‘injured.’” Find out the 60 things every caregiver needs you to know.