This week, in honor of Valentine’s Day and the unyielding devotion of the caregivers within the Caregiver Support Program (CSP), we’ll be sharing a tale as old as time – the tale of love.
We’re featuring the love stories of caregivers from CSP’s Peer Support Mentoring Program – Then, Now, and Forever: The Caregivers and the Veterans They Love.
Volker and Margarita Brunke reside in Washington, where Volker is Margarita’s caregiver. But long before he was her caregiver, Volker was a smitten German soldier who was head over heels for Margarita.
Here’s Brunke’s take on the love he has for his wife and how CSP’s Peer Support Mentoring Program has helped him and others in their journeys as caregivers.
The most important day of his life
Brunke can remember meeting his wife for the first time like it was yesterday. The date was May 18, 1999. The location: Royal Air Force Base in Alconbury, England. He even remembers the time. It was 4:35 pm, or as he would put it, 1635L.
Margarita and Volker spending time together in 2020.
According to Brunke, meeting Margarita was the most important day of his life, followed by August 24, 2009 – the day he became a naturalized US citizen.
How did you meet your wife, Margarita?
Volker: I was the future German National Representative of the Multinational Intelligence Coordination Cell, a mission serving troops on the ground in the Balkans.
The representative who I was replacing was introducing me to other representatives. Sergeant First Class Margarita Reyes-Cruz, was the U.S. National Representative.
What were your initial thoughts when you met Margarita?
Volker: When I walked into the room, I looked into her eyes and was completely blown away. I was so smitten. It was love at first sight.
How did you progress from being ‘smitten’ to celebrating 20 years of marriage?
Volker: I resigned from my duties as a German soldier and immigrated to the U.S. in February of 2000. We got married in September of that year. We’ve been together ever since.
Margarita continued her career in the Army after you married?
Volker: Yes. Two years later, she deployed for [a total of] seven years. I saw her about two weeks a year, max. I held down the home front while she was gone and raised our son. My stepson, but for me, he has always been my son. He calls me “dad” in German.
How did you become Margarita’s caregiver?
Volker: In 2008, Margarita was diagnosed with severe PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), resulting from an incident while she was deployed. They took a serious toll on her. In 2010, I resigned from my job to become her appointed caregiver.
Volker and Margarita, both Soldiers in 2002.
You’re a mentor in the Caregiver Peer Support Mentoring Program. What does the program mean to you?
Volker: When my wife was medically separated from the Army, it became clear I would have to step up my engagement as a husband and become a caregiver. Not that I minded at all, but it was a change, nonetheless.
Being an Army husband made me realize very quickly that a husband as a caregiver for a soldier isn’t common. I pretty much felt truly alone. But because of VA, I started to learn about the caregiver program and this program helped me to not only get my caregiver certifications but also enabled me to become part of the mentor program.
I’ve been able to help a few people in their walk as caregivers to understand what PTSD/TBI means. I’ve helped a few parents who have become caregivers to their kids and it feels good to render help where help is needed. There’s strength in numbers.
Can being a caregiver be difficult?
Volker: Sometimes. But if you asked me if I’d do it again, I’d say heck yes!
What advice do you have for other caregivers, especially those who are spouses?
Volker: Ask, ask, and ask! Go to your local VA and ask for the family support coordinator and they’ll point you in the right direction. Lastly, go to “Amazon” and order the extra-large pack of patience. You can’t see PTSD or TBI, but they’re real!
About the Peer Mentoring Program
The Caregiver Peer Support Mentoring Program provides an opportunity for caregivers to receive guidance and to share their experiences, wisdom, skills, and passion with other caregivers. The program is offered under VA’s Caregiver Support Program, Program of General Caregiver Support Services (PGCSS).
PGCSS is available to all caregivers of Veterans enrolled in VA healthcare. There are no eligibility requirements for PGCSS and no formal application. Learn more about the Peer Support Mentoring Program.
Michelle Stefanelli is the national program manager for the Care Management and Social Work Service.