By Zach Sparks
As a kindergarten teacher, Nancy Kules educated kids a few years after they learned how to walk and write. She never expected to watch as her husband relearned those same skills.
That experience came back in 2005 when Ryan Kules was critically wounded, and Nancy has served as his caregiver ever since. That background makes her an ideal candidate for her new role as the Dole Caregiver Fellow for Maryland until 2021.
Nancy was chosen for the position by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, which empowers, supports and honors U.S. military caregivers: the spouses, parents, family members and friends who care for America’s wounded, ill or injured veterans.
Her advocacy for veterans started after November 29, 2005, when her life and Ryan’s changed forever.
Ryan was serving in the U.S. Army as an armor officer. He was in Taji, Iraq, roughly 15 miles north of Baghdad.
“We were doing an early morning raid on a house we determined had some insurgent activity,” Ryan said. “We were on our way back to base.”
An improvised explosive device was buried in the road.
“It cut our vehicle in half and severed my right arm and my left leg above the knee,” Ryan said. “I was found about 15 to 20 minutes after the explosion went off.”
Two of Ryan’s comrades were killed. Ryan was taken to a hospital in Germany and then to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He spent two weeks in a medically induced coma. Eighteen months of rehab later, he went home.
At 22 years old, Nancy had to leave her job teaching kindergarten in Arizona so she could be with her husband, to whom she’d been married for only a year. Ryan and Nancy later settled in Severna Park and had three children — who are now ages 11, 9 and 7 — adapting to their “new normal” as Nancy calls it.
“Ryan and I both work very hard to anticipate potential challenges associated with his disabilities before they arise, and accommodate for those things in advance so things generally look pretty seamless from the outside,” Nancy said. “That might mean huge undertakings, such as modifying our entire home to be ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] accessible, down to small tweaks like penciling in extra moments to relax at theme parks, finding summer vacation options that don't include the beach (because sand plus prosthetics is a challenge for us) or calling ahead to see if an activity is one hand or prosthetic friendly. Being mindful and proactive is doable, but trying to stay ahead of it all can definitely be pretty physically and mentally exhausting too.”
Ryan has worked for Wounded Warrior Project since 2007 and Nancy has been his tireless advocate. Together they have supported families battling “invisible” injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
Nancy applied and earned the position as the Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s Maryland Caregiver Fellow.
During her two-year term, she wants to use her background in education and communication to work on the Hidden Hero Cities aspect of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.
Hidden Hero Cities is a growing network dedicated to identifying local military and veteran caregivers and increasing awareness and support for them. Through this program, cities join the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and participating communities across the nation to streamline services and share best practices for addressing the needs of caregivers at a local level.
More than 110 cities have signed on but none are from Maryland.
To get there, Nancy is following a detailed plan. Get stakeholders from Annapolis or Baltimore to pledge their support. Designate a local point of contact from the public or private sector to spearhead the initiative. Form a steering committee, or integrate the Hidden Hero initiative into an existing committee, so a group of volunteers can assess and address the unique needs or Maryland’s military caregivers.
Caregivers are people who support service members or veterans by managing medication, coordinating medical appointments, providing emotional and physical support, assisting with activities of daily living, or advocating for proper treatment.
“I hope I can utilize my platform as Maryland’s 2019 Dole Fellow to launch a statewide conversation including policymakers, businesses and individuals,” Nancy said. “I truly believe if Marylanders work together, we can create meaningful and lasting impact for the veteran caregiver population in the state of Maryland.”
So far, she has met the new Fellows from Virginia and Washington, D.C.
“The hope is to figure out with the three of us if we can outline this process more for our area but also for Alabama, Arizona, Colorado and other states so [the Fellows] can identify solutions specific to their demographic, their region,” Nancy said. “We don’t have a playbook, but we’re trying to write the playbook as we go.”
Ryan has no doubts Nancy will advance the Hidden Heroes agenda and continue to support military members and caregivers nationwide just as she has supported him.
“My injuries will never go away and her advocating for me will never go away,” he said.
May is the Month of the Military Caregiver. Learn more at www.elizabethdolefoundation.org.