Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. In this week’s Tillman Tuesday, we had the opportunity to talk with Class of 2015 Tillman Scholar Heather Barnett who has completed a master’s in school in counseling overseas and is currently in her first semester in her Ed.D. program at Alliant International University. Heather has been faced with adversity both as a mother and widow and plans to use her life experiences in order to help others.
AS YOUR SON WAS DIAGNOSED WITH AUTISM IN 2009, FROM A PARENT’S PERSPECTIVE, WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO GO THROUGH THAT LIFE-CHANGING DIAGNOSIS AFTER LIVING A LIFE OF ‘NORMALCY’?
“My son was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old. He met all of the developmental milestones by 13 months but our big red flag was his speech development. As a mother’s intuition is strong, I asked at every doctor’s visit about the possibility of autism and my son’s pediatrician at the time assured me that he was not autistic. When we returned to San Diego from Japan in 2008, my son had no words even at 15 months. He was my first baby, we were living overseas so there were so many aspects to it that made it challenging. When we returned to San Diego a new pediatrician helped me get him into speech therapy and within four months he was given the diagnosis at two years old. In one day our life and mindset changed – all of a sudden we were faced with something we didn’t know much about and also knew that things were going to be different from that point on.
Now he is eight-years-old, constantly adjusting to growth spurts and environmental changes associated with his education and therapy programs. Managing his education has been filled with challenging hurdles. My son has received very little inclusion time in general education in school. I have been reassured that this was the best for him and for everyone else although I never agreed with it. I learned that different districts have varied approaches to educating students with autism and the isolated, seclusion model may not be best for these kids. So, I began to learn as much as possible from our revolving door of ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) therapists and I have become a strong advocate not only for my son, but for all special needs students in this district and help the receive more inclusion time in mainstream classrooms.
My experience so far is that autism evolves over time. As a child grows, there are behavioral, emotional, sensory and social issues that must continually be managed. With a strong early intervention program, some kids are able to grow out of some of the challenging symptoms whereas other kids get worse. Some develop seizures as teenagers and others require intense medications where dosages need to be monitored and changed often. Despite our daily challenges, I want to be successful at school. At the beginning of this year, my son’s school called me every day for a month and a half asking me to solve problems while not listening to what I feel he needs. This year started to improve when ABA aides from an outside agency were appointed to my son during his school days. I still struggle with the education system in Coronado but at least I know my son is now being better taken care of in his classroom. For now we have busted through a wall.”
HOW HAS YOUR SON’S DIAGNOSIS INSPIRED YOUR PATH WORKING TOWARDS A PH.D. IN EDUCATION?
“From what I have learned of the special education process and monitoring my son’s progress in school while reading scholarly journal articles on various topics involving autism and education, I have recognized many inadequacies of the special education system in public schools across the country. I have found that areas such as special education leadership, inclusion practices, and specific methods of teaching/learning are lacking in educational research. These gaps in the literature are in need of more attention. I am particularly interested in the secondary level because by the time my son is older, with being able to stay in the education system until he’s 22, he will be pushed out into the world with limited help. Under the current system, the family is tasked with assembling a collage of services with limited to no financial assistance.
However, little by little more transitional programs are being implemented where young adults with autism go from high school to transitional college programs to meaningful employment. These programs are in their infancy and in need of research to determine what is need to help them expand to cater to more students.
I am most interested in what makes transitional college programs successful and how can they be expanded to allow more individuals on the autism spectrum a chance to participate and succeed. I am ultimately interested in creating a universal educational framework for autism that can be implemented in post-secondary across the country.”
WHAT WOULD YOUR IDEAL JOB BE WHEN YOU EARN YOUR Ed.D.?
“I would love the opportunity to develop curriculum for transitional programs like College to Career, which is a pilot program now in its third year at a few community colleges in California–. This particular program is a fully supported residential program where students focus on their strengths and translate this into potential employment. Employment opportunities are available to students when they complete the 3 year program. I’m very interested in what they do as it is geared more towards individuals with moderate level autism, which is where my son is at on the spectrum. I would like to continue my research efforts to determine how to expand these successful programs so more people can participate.”
COULD YOU PLEASE EXPLAIN YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND’S MILITARY PATH.
“I met my husband my senior year of college in 2002 while he was stationed in San Diego. He was a Naval Academy graduate in 1999. In 2004 he received shore duty orders for two years in Sicily so we went – I’m extremely glad did that we did because his life was cut very short. We had a great time traveling for two years. When we arrived in Sicily, I learned about a University of Maryland satellite program that offered a Master’s in Education with an emphasis in guidance counseling. I enrolled and completed all of the course work while overseas. The Dodds school system was unable to take me on as an intern – which was very unfortunate. We found out four days before we left Sicily that I was pregnant. Our son was born in Newport, Rhode Island during Department Head School. We had orders for Japan and moved 7 weeks after he was born. We were in Japan for the next year and a half, which was a very hard tour for my husband working crazy hours with an unpredictable schedule.
We returned to San Diego at the end of 2008 and my son was 14 months old. He wasn’t speaking so we got into speech therapy and his diagnosis came shortly after. Luckily San Diego is the place to be for Autism research and therapy. During this time, my husband was suffering from mental health issues (anxiety and depression) and when we returned to San Diego he got into treatment under care of Navy doctors. He followed through with treatment and regained active duty status for the next 6 years. He was successful and promoted during this time. My husband’s depression was cyclic and came when he was confronted with a lot of stress. In May 2014, one thing led to another and I believe he had a total nervous breakdown leading to his death.”
HAVING LIVED THROUGH YOUR HUSBAND’S STRUGGLES WITH MENTAL HEALTH FIRST HAND, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT MEASURES TO ADDRESS MENTAL HEALTH AMONG OUR ARMED FORCES AFTER DEPLOYMENT?
“I feel mental health among those that serve is a major overlooked problem and I wish I could do so much more to impact that side. After he passed, I tried to call out issues left and right and find out where the holes are.
When we were sent home from Japan, the Navy safety net enabled my husband to get the treatment that he needed in any way possible without jeopardizing his career. My husband followed a rigorous treatment plan while on limited duty for nine months. At the nine month mark detailing explained that they really needed him to return to sea and asked if he would take a job. We were not sure that he was ready to go back to the same high-stress environment that he left in Japan. This was a stressful decision, but he felt that he couldn’t turn down the job as the Navy stressed how important it was that he takes the job. He reported to the USS Mobile Bay in San Diego as an Operations Officer, the same job he was doing in Japan and left early from.
Ultimately he chose to go back to work and I wasn’t in a position to hold him back further. I did not think nine months was long enough for him to heal and be ready. Thankfully, the crew was amazing, the captain was amazing and he was very successful during his whole tour. He was successful on the following tour as Navigator on the USS Boxer and he loved every day of it. His last tour was on the USS Essex where he was the Damage Control Assistant but the command climate on the ship was cold and challenging. His hours were incredibly long and towards the end, he was spending 3-4 nights on the ship a week because that’s when I understood certain engineering jobs got done.
I was unaware and blind-sided when the end came. I knew his job was stressful for him but I was unaware of how beat down he was after only 8 months on this job. His job was deteriorating but I knew very little about this at home. Despite the fact that he was successful through his two tours, the treatment that he required should have been lifelong and monitored by the Navy if they needed him badly enough to go back to that environment. Instead, the details of his mental health history were not part of his medical record given to the three ships following Japan. No one knew about the time he spent on limited duty or why he needed that time. I think there’s a big time problem with suicide attempts not being documented properly and people being put back to work when they’re not ready.”
AFTER YOUR FIRST CHILD, BENNY, WAS DIAGNOSED WITH AUTISM, WERE YOU SKEPTICAL ABOUT HAVING ANOTHER CHILD?
“Initially we wanted another child but after our difficult tour in Japan, coupled with Benny’s diagnosis, we had a lot on our plate so we put the brakes on it. After talking it through we came to the conclusion that we did not want Benny to grow up without siblings. We thought it would be for his benefit to have a sibling. When Natalie was born, she was an angel. She is a Godsend to us – she was that awesome, beautiful addition to our family and has been an amazing sister to Benny. She helps pull him out of his shell, makes him share with her and does things that an autistic child wouldn’t be able to do on his own. My husband loved Natalie with all his heart. They connected instantly and had a very special bond. I wish that he could see them grow up together. He would be so incredibly proud.”
HOW DO YOU COMPREHEND AND WRAP YOUR HEAD AROUND LOSING YOUR HUSBAND DWAYNE, WITH TWO SMALL KIDS AT HOME? WAS THERE A MOMENT YOU REALIZED YOU HAD TO MOVE ON WITH YOUR KIDS?
“Even today it’s hard for me to put into words how I even came out of the fog of it all. It took time to find the courage to rejoin the community where I live, to share my story. My family and kids helped me find the strength I have needed to keep moving forward. The people in my community have been amazingly supportive still to this day. I decided to stay in Coronado and raise my kids here because of the support we have received. This continues to remind me that there are some really good people in the world. It helped me feel a connection to something. I didn’t know what my future held but I knew that I had a lot of people around me as my support system.”
WITH YOUR YOUNG KIDS LOSING THEIR FATHER, HOW DO YOU KEEP DWAYNE’S MEMORY ALIVE FOR THEM?
“The first 8-9 months were very tough but I learned that it’s okay for my children to see me grieve and cry. One thing that I’m so glad I knew was that my husband wanted to be buried at sea. We chartered a wooden yacht in San Diego that went the same pathway a Navy ship would take to the ocean. We were 1,000 yards off of Hotel Del Coronado and Coronado Beach and we scattered his ashes there. My daughter was so young and probably won’t remember much. My son knew that he was gone and this was very hard. I felt that with time we would be able to focus on who Dwayne was and remember the happy times we all spent together.
I take my kids to the beach often and we talk about their daddy. I will point to the ocean and tell them, Daddy is out there in heaven, let’s say a prayer for him. We write letters and read them, we blow kisses…’ My daughter will make art projects at the beach and we let balloons go. I am not sure if either of them fully comprehend everything, but everything we do for Dwayne is positive and the kids look forward to it. One of the things I recommend to all military spouses is to have your spouse read books on tape or video to your kids before deploying – that’s something I’m so glad we did.”
WITH EVERYTHING YOU’VE GONE THROUGH AND CONTINUE TO WORK THROUGH, WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF?
“I feel that I am a very uniquely strong human being, though I don’t always know where the strength comes from. My perspective has definitely shifted and changed since Dwayne’s death. I try to find happiness every single day. I have always enjoyed running for fitness and after we received my son’s diagnosis, I decided to sign up for a full length marathon. I completed that and ran three more, finishing with the Boston Marathon in 2011. I have also run many half marathons in between. After his death, I was encouraged to sign up for the next local race, the Independence Day run. I finished and recognized how therapeutic it is to have something like this to look forward to. I got back into it and set a 2015 goal to run the triple crown ½ marathons in San Diego and I did.
For me, running is therapy and helps me get out of my head, not focus on the past and keeps me present. I love yoga for the same reasons, which I feel really helps me mentally stay in the present and I use those practices every day.”
WHAT DOES BEING A TILLMAN SCHOLAR MEAN TO YOU AND HOW HAS THE COMMUNITY HELPED YOU?
“I’m really honored to be part of this community. I don’t think I really knew the depths of what it meant when I applied. I knew it was something meaningful to my family to carry on and continue the Autism research in the direction that will help many more people affected by it. I felt like applying and receiving the scholarship strengthens my cause and makes me feel more connected to all these amazing people – it gives me that strength, motivation and encouragement to do what I’m doing.”
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO MILITARY SPOUSES – AS IT’S NOT NECESSARILY ALWAYS ABOUT THE DEPLOYMENT?
“Given my very personal experience there are a couple of things:
1- We are called ‘dependents’ as spouses. We move around so frequently that it’s hard to hold down a career and employment and therefore you feel very dependent. I have met many spouses who fall into this tag along role. I feel there are so many resources and help out there, and I feel it’s super important that you take an introspective approach and do something you really want to do for you. I think it is important that spouses have opportunities to thrive and better themselves while being a military spouse. Find something you’re passionate about and do it.
2- I really believe in pre-deployment counseling to keep channels of communication open between spouses. It’s important to discuss where each spouse is at in the marriage and also to discuss the transitions you’re going to be facing – Be proactive about it and open the conversation. That’s something that’s hard on both sides that both spouses need to work on. I really do believe in the power of counseling and that it can make a big difference. It’s important to evaluate your perspective on what’s happening during a deployment – it doesn’t always have to be negative.”