Two weeks before mom-of-three Brittany Zurn was set to begin a new job in 2014, she learned her husband, Aaron, had fallen nearly 20 feet out of a helicopter while deployed overseas as part of a special-forces unit in the U.S. Marine Corps. The traumatic brain injury (TBI), along with numerous other injuries he suffered during his 10 and a half years in the military, has left 31-year-old Aaron with the mental capacity of a 13-year-old.
While singlehandedly caring for Aaron and their three children — ages 4, 6 and 7 — Zurn, 29, dealt with starts and stops in her endeavor to become an elementary school teacher. But thanks to assistance from an organization for military families called Hope for the Warriors, she was able to find the time and funding to achieve her goal.
“I really needed my own thing,” Brittany Zurn, who teaches first grade in Hampstead, North Carolina, told Fox News.
Hope for the Warriors was founded in 2006 to help retired service members better transition into civilian life and be seen as more than only their medical diagnoses, Robin Kelleher, the co-founder, president and CEO of the nonprofit, who is also a former military spouse, told Fox News.
“Our mission at the end of the day is to ensure that service members and their family, and those family members of the fallen, are restored with a sense of hope,” said Kelleher, whose organization has served 13,000 families since its inception on the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
In the Zurns’ case, Aaron’s TBI led to significant brain and behavioral changes that affected his daily life. TBIs are caused by an external force that strikes the brain or body, leading to physical damage to the brain and potentially death, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Aaron's role in the special-forces unit MARSOC also caused him emotional trauma. Certain war experiences — like watching fellow Marines get blown up by rocket-propelled grenades in Iraq when he was newly deployed at age 19, and sacrificing himself to save his fellow service members atop a mountain in Afghanistan in 2012 — led him to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and an eventual addiction to alcohol.
PTSD occurs when an individual has stressful reactions that cause distress, and interrupt home and work life, for longer than three months after the traumatic event, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Symptoms include having flashbacks, avoiding situations that may refresh memories of the traumatic event, experiencing negative feelings, dealing with sleep and concentration problems, and getting startled by loud noises. PTSD can increase the risk of depression and suicide, according to the VA.
Brittany developed secondary PTSD as her husband leaned on her for emotional support and she dealt with the realities of being a military wife. That included not being able to use her real name on Facebook, and sending photos and hand-drawn pictures by their children to Aaron while he was deployed, only to have him burn them so the insurgency could not access them.
“I went through a lot of therapy and had postpartum depression every time I got pregnant because I was alone,” added Zurn, whose family is in Dayton, Ohio.
Meanwhile, Zurn was trying to finish her education, which was initially interrupted when she relocated from Dayton to Jacksonville, North Carolina, two years after Aaron was deployed during her senior year of high school.
“I couldn’t live without him,” said Zurn, who explained the two grew up about 1 mile away from each other and were “middle-school sweethearts.”
In 2013, Zurn ended up graduating with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), but because she needed to tend to Aaron during his recovery, she was never able to complete her student teaching and earn her teaching license.
While raising their children, she fought for Aaron to receive the treatment he needed for PTSD, which he was officially diagnosed with in 2014. While Aaron insisted on staying in MARSOC, Brittany pushed for him to get treatment. In April 2016, he ended up retiring for medical reasons. Now, he is 100 percent disabled.
With help from Hope for the Warriors, which they began working with in 2015, the Zurns were able to better manage the 50 percent loss in income from Aaron’s retirement, as well as covering the upwards of $800 needed to take Aaron to and from his doctor’s appointments each month. And, in 2014, Brittany received a scholarship through the organization to help her finish school.
“Being a caregiver can be very difficult — especially on young families,” Kelleher said. “It really changes what your hopes and dreams were for your future. So to be able to say, ‘Hey, this is my family. I’m standing strong with them, but I’m going to go back to school’ because that is self-fulfilling for [Brittany] … that’s the one piece of advice all caregivers need to hear. You have to take care of yourself.”
Brittany said she continues to attend therapy and helps her husband adhere to his own treatment plan, which involves using their service dog, Maddy, a 4-year-old golden retriever and Labrador mix, for emotional support, and fishing near their home. But she’s still prioritizing herself in her pursuit for higher education, as she is working on her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at UNCW.
“I needed this recovery process so badly — to have my own thing outside of being a military wife and a mom,” Zurn said. “[Those are] wonderful things to be, but they’re also very taxing. And being a teacher is also taxing, but it’s given me a sense of self-worth that I’m helping cultivate someone else’s mind and helping them grow.”