Lauren Fagan and her husband, Osee, know what it’s like to hit rock bottom.
Her husband was a Marine on assignment in Afghanistan in 2013 when he was injured, suffering from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“The combination of TBI and PTSD is devastating,” Lauren said. “Mixing the two with alcohol is catastrophic.” Through the process of trying to find their way, the couple began to bandaid their problems with alcohol. The alcohol abuse nearly ended their marriage. Thankfully, after receiving treatment and the tools that they needed to better manage the everyday strain, they were able to stop drinking and build a new and healthy normal for themselves.
“I've been at that level where I don't really care what happens to me anymore,” she said. “You know, it's miserable. But to see the comeback, or the “glow up”, as some people call it, and now how amazing life is.”
That’s why she and Osee have created a nonprofit they call Operation Barnabas to try to reach wounded veterans in need. The Fagans want to use their hard-fought experience to help others work through the bureaucracy of the Veterans Affairs (VA) system. Because they have hit rock bottom themselves, they believe they have the credibility to reach fellow sufferers.
The couple bought a farm in Keystone Heights, Florida, where they could offer respite to struggling veterans. Lauren became an expert in finding grants to help them support the operation. Later, they left Florida and resettled near Camp LeJeune in North Carolina, Lauren’s hometown. That’s where they established the Spearit Veteran Fishing Project, which reaches wounded veterans through fishing trips.
“We wanted to help other veterans with whatever their struggle may be,” Lauren explained. “It has really grown over the last five years, and I can say with certainty that all of our struggles were not in vain and have paid off immeasurably in the help and healing of others who are in the same shoes we once were.”
In addition to helping to run the fishing project, Lauren provides the care her husband needs, raise her four children and manage the family’s household. Throughout it, she hung onto the goal of studying toward a degree that would enable her to deepen her ability to help families like hers.
“My ‘new’ normal has been occupied with VA appointments, TBI clinics, therapists, phone calls, advocating, and trying to understand the new norm with a rather large family,” she said. “We are a family of six, tightly bonded, probably a little more so than a common family would be. With my husband unable to work full time, the benefit of this is that he is able to spend countless precious moments with our children. Around here, we choose to look at the positive because we know things could be far worse.”
Lauren is also a blogger for Hope for the Warriors, sharing stories from her life as a caregiver.
“I am able to offer hope to others who may find themselves in a dark place,” she said, “or just offer them kind words of experience to shed light on how great things really can be if you change your perspective.”
Lauren said her first attempt at college out of high school didn’t get far. She enjoyed partying too much. “I wish I had believed in myself as much at 18, 19 or 20 as I do now,” she said.
Her first husband left her with a daughter to raise. She has now been with Osee for 16 years. He was with the MARSOC Marine Special Operations Command for 17 years before his injuries.
Lauren did go back to college at Liberty University, studying online. She is close to completing her bachelor’s degree, but paying for that educational journey has been difficult. Nonetheless, she is determined to finish it. And she doesn’t want to stop there. As a recipient of a Pillars of Strength Scholarship, she will be able to follow that up with a master’ degree in psychology at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC).
Lauren had put off applying for the scholarship. But she said UMGC Director of Veterans Initiatives Kelly Grooms kept after her. What did she have to lose? So finally, Lauren sat down and finished the application.
But she didn’t expect much.
Kelly told her the good news as she was driving home from helping at her church’s vacation Bible school: Lauren was a Pillars of Strength scholarship recipient.
“I was already in meltdown mode because I’d been around those 91 kids,” Lauren said. “I just started crying because it was a huge surprise. It was such a huge blessing to be able to have this opportunity.”
She hopes to use the scholarship, which covers the tuition and fees for students who are caregivers of servicemembers or veterans, to study crisis response intervention. She sees the degree as a tool in continuing to help the veteran community.
“I know the struggle, the grip that you must have on your marriage, the feeling of being spread so thin you feel like you could split,” she said. “I want the educational background to be able to help save lives, keep families together, and offer resources to veterans and their families that only someone who has lived through it can provide.”