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RIO RANCHO, N.M. — A military chaplain deployed four times, pulled 27 injured people from the wreckage of a bombed dining hall, was hit by a mortar and was pinned under the tire of a vehicle that ran over an improvised explosive device.
Now, living in Rio Rancho, retired Col. Quentin Dwayne Collins and his family struggle with his medical issues, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injury and paralysis. His wife, Melida Collins, takes care of him and advocates for other military and veteran caregivers.
“A military caregiver’s life is challenging, but at the end of the day, it is rewarding,” she said.
November is National Family Caregivers Month.
In October, Melida traveled to Washington, D.C., to ask Congressional representatives for support and gather with other caregivers as a Dole Caregiver Fellow with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama gave the keynote speech at the “convening,” and actor Tom Hanks made an appearance. Melida said it was amazing that celebrities would stand with caregivers to show them “I care and you matter.”
She is challenging all mayors in New Mexico to designate their communities as Hidden Hero Cities to acknowledge caregivers and their need for help, and commit to doing what they can to assist. She’s been working with Mayor Gregg Hull to have Rio Rancho take on the designation.
Melida said 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers are in the U.S., not counting secondary caregivers. They need the community’s help, she said.
Caregivers tend to think they should be strong enough to do everything, but she encourages them to ask for help because many people and organizations are ready to step up.
“We don’t need bling,” she said. “We need services. We need understanding. We need compassion.”
The Collins’ children pitch in, and several neighbors often offer assistance.
“I’m just really thankful for them,” Melida said. “But not everybody has that.”
Dwayne’s military story started when he joined at the end of the Vietnam era, serving as a sniper and then a chaplain.
He left the military for five years in the 1990s to further his education but returned after 9/11. As an Air Force chaplain, he was in Mosul, Iraq, on Dec. 20, 2004, when a suicide bomber struck the dining facility where he and others were eating.
Dwayne received minimal injuries.
“So instead he was pulling people out and giving aid,” his wife said.
When more medics arrived, he went to the casualty collection point, where a mortar hit him.
Unwilling to leave his men over the holidays, Dwayne kept working until he collapsed 13 days later. His back was broken, and he had been functioning on adrenaline and a strong will, Melida said.
The Air Force medically discharged Dwayne. She described the struggle to get adequate medical care from the U.S. Veterans Administration as a “never-ending abyss of nothingness.”
Doctors told Dwayne he’d never walk again, and he despaired. Then, a surgeon suggested a procedure that offered a 25 percent chance of recovery.
It worked. In about a year, Dwayne was back on his feet and joined the Army.
In the spring of 2008, during a humanitarian mission in Afghanistan on his fourth deployment, his truck hit an IED and flipped. Melida said her husband talks as if it were no big deal, but he had to be pulled out from under the vehicle.
After medical treatment in the U.S., Dwayne became a liaison for neighborhood partnerships and faith-based initiatives in the Obama administration until 2013.
Then, the Collins family moved to New Mexico, since Dwayne’s family is from the state. He served in the National Guard until medically retiring in February 2016, 40 years after he first joined the military.
He had received three Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars, one with a V device signifying valor.
“And that’s where my journey begins, the biggest part of it,” Melida said.
After Dwayne’s retirement, Melida began noticing uncharacteristic short-term memory lapses, short temper and physical deterioration.
“I was overwhelmed by his issues,” Melida said.
She said Dwayne can feed himself but not cook, and requires her assistance for many daily functions. She doesn’t leave him alone.
Doctors say his condition is terminal.
The Collins have five children, ages 30, 27, 22, 11 and 7. The youngest two are home-schooled so they can keep up with studies in the midst of Dwayne’s multiple weekly medical appointments, which occasionally include trips to California.
Melida said they also become mini-caregivers. The boys feel the family’s stressors and, she said, mimic their father’s symptoms.
Although the Collins family has struggled with VA red tape, Melida believes the agency is the best option for care after combat injuries. However, it provides little support for caregivers in the Southwest and none for patients’ children, she said.
Melida found the Dole Foundation’s Hidden Heroes Network. The group educates, empowers and advocates for caregivers of veterans and military members, whether that caregiver is a spouse, other family member or friend.
Melida said the foundation is active in New Mexico, but quietly because families don’t want to make their struggles public.
She said her role as caregiver has become her first priority.
“My identity is now him – most of it is him,” she said.
That situation left her wondering what she’d do if she lost her husband. Melida is working on her doctorate in psychology because she wants to help other spouses and children of wounded veterans.
She already runs the FRAME Initiative, a nonprofit serving military members, veterans, first responders, civilians who served in overseas war zones and their families. Through it, Melida and Dwayne work to help those families find a new normal and provide other support.
“If I have the time with everything I have in my hands, what would it be like if neighbors gave 30 minutes of their time?” she asked.
To get help from the Hidden Heroes Network or to support caregivers, visit hiddenheroes.org or call Melida at 219-9994.