Caitlin Bacus—Along with “Daddy’s Little Helpers”–Struggled to Care for Her Seriously Ill Husband and Now is Ready to Invest in Herself
After seven years of excruciating physical illness—and the mental challenges that accompanied it—former Marine Sgt. Paul Bacus has finally returned to the labor force. That has given his wife, Caitlin, a little bit of breathing room in her roles as caregiver and mother to their three children. It has also convinced her that it is time to get a college degree to help in her work assisting veteran servicemembers, like her husband, to find jobs.
A Pillars of Strength Scholarship to University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) will make that aspiration possible.
As the U.S. Marines prepared to abandon Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan in 2014, Bacus was assigned to the burn pit staff, which gathered all the camp’s equipment—including computers and furniture—and set it ablaze. For days, the service members lived night and day in a miasma of fumes, smoke and smog full of untold chemicals.
Paul soon started to feel ill, said Caitlin, but after he sought medical care a few times, he was told that if he kept coming back, he would be redeployed. “No Marine wants to be told you have to go back home because you can’t do your job,” Caitlin said. “He sucked it up and finished his deployment during the next 10 months.”
He was in such pain when he got home that he went straight to the doctor, even though he feared he would be discharged from the Marine Corps. His legs had started swelling and nothing brought relief. So much fluid had built up that he could not get an MRI.
The Marines stationed him at Quantico so he could be close to Walter Reed Army Medical Center near Washington, D.C. As his condition worsened, Caitlin found herself maneuvering through I-95 traffic for an hour to get him to the hospital. It was only one of the ways her days changed.
The family had two young children and a new baby. Caitlin took the older children out of school to homeschool them. The house they were in no longer worked because Paul could not climb the stairs. One night it took Caitlin an hour to hoist him upstairs.
“I made it to the top of the stairs and sat down and cried,” she said. “I was a caregiver, mom, teacher and postpartum mess.”
Military doctors diagnosed Paul with Henoch Schoenlein purpura with hemorrhagic bullae, an ailment so rare that they did not know how to treat him. They sent him to Johns Hopkins University Hospital, where doctors said he was suffering from chemical exposure from the burn pits but they, too, did not know how to treat him. Paul started to go into kidney and liver failure.
On top of that, the military medical board decided he could no longer stay in the service.
“I cried myself to sleep for weeks,” Caitlin said. “Unemployed with three young kids, kidney and liver failure, no house, no plan, no nothing. I have never been so terrified in my entire life.”
When Paul attempted suicide, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and sent for six months of treatment.
For the years that followed, caring for Paul was a full- time job. Caitlin got him to doctors’ appointments, visited him during hospital stays. Her then 11-year-old daughter and sons, aged 9 and 7, pitched in to help care for his wounds.
“We used to call my older two Daddy’s little helpers, Daddy’s little nurses,” she said. “They would hold his hand while we did wound care, kissing his booboos, sitting with him when he couldn’t get out. It created in them a compassion.”
Caitlin said the Veterans Administration has done a good job of coordinating Paul’s care. He has recovered slowly, gaining some health stability, although he will live with his condition permanently. Now, for the first time since 2014, he is able to work again full time. The family has relocated to Abilene, Texas, where he is starting a new job as a paralegal.
Caitlin heard about the Pillars of Strength Scholarship from a friend. For years she put off applying because she didn’t think she had the time for school, and she figured she would never be selected for the scholarship anyway. Then she decided it was time to invest in herself.
When she received a call from UMGC to let her know she was one of eight Pillars of Strength Scholarship winners this year, she was driving the family across the country to the new job in Texas.
“I just cried,” she said. “I felt so unworthy of such a gift.”
The call came just weeks before the U.S. Congress approved legislation to expand health care coverage for veterans who developed illnesses after exposure to burn pits.
Caitlin wants to pursue a degree in human resources management. She is working for Orion Talent, which helps place veterans in companies looking to hire vets. She said she sees how much good can come from connecting people to jobs. She said the veterans she assists are not sure how their military skills translate to civilian jobs, doubt whether they deserve the jobs and do not know how much they can be paid.
“It’s so fulfilling to reassure them that they are so gifted and they are so needed,” she said. “I just want to find a way I can do that in the future. It would be a perfect fit.”