By Carol Radin
Photo by Maureen Tricase/Capture Your Moments Photography
Looking back on the night that she met her husband, Maggie Bristol beams.
“He was like my knight in shining armor,” she said. “A southern gentleman — kind, friendly, outgoing.”
Jeremy was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Maggie was teaching school nearby. They were married two years later. At the time, Maggie and Jeremy could not have known all the ways they both would change, and, even after hitting rock bottom, grow together and become stronger. Maggie’s devotion to Jeremy sparked something more — an intense commitment to promoting support for veterans’ with mental health problems and their caregivers.
In recognition of her activism for military caregivers and her work with mental health issues, Maggie Bristol has been selected as New York State’s representative for the Dole Caregivers’ Fellowship. The Dole Caregivers’ Fellowship is a national program started by Senator Elizabeth Dole to promote advocacy, legislative support and personal support to the “Hidden Heroes,” the families of military veterans coping with physical and mental disabilities as a result of their service. As one of the 50 Dole Caregivers across the U.S. and Puerto Rico, Maggie will champion caregivers’ needs at veteran events, local health fairs, conferences and political forums. Excited at the prospect, Maggie has already started initiating ideas she wants to implement, and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation will provide her with the necessary assistance and materials.
A particular focus will be to strengthen the connection with another organization dear to her heart, the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI).
“I’m very passionate about mental health,” she said. “This coincides with my role as a board member for NAMI Syracuse and also aligns with my role as a Dole Fellow.” Recently, she submitted a grant to do events for veterans through NAMI, as well as another grant to support veterans’ attendance at the NAMI state conference in October.
What was it that motivated Maggie to transform her own and Jeremy’s private struggles to a public forum?
“I want to be that person I needed five years ago,” she said. “I was very alone for a long time.”
When Maggie and Jeremy got married in 2011, “it was perfect,” Maggie said. “We had a cute little house. We had a cat. We had a lot of friends. We went to the beach, to concerts.”
Yet even then, there were signs that Jeremy was not coping well emotionally. He was enduring back problems from his Army days, but this was different. Seeking medical help, Jeremy and Maggie went to three different Veterans’ Administration hospitals in 2013 alone. Then, after Christmas, Jeremy had a breakdown. In the hospital, something like a moment of truth arrived.
“Have you ever thought of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?” the nurse asked. Maggie recalls Jeremy’s reaction vividly. “He looked at her. He looked at me. And then he looked down. And then I realized there was so much I didn’t know.”
From then on, Maggie set out to know more about Jeremy’s pain. Side by side, she and Jeremy took on the struggles they could now acknowledge. Along with that personal commitment, Maggie learned first-hand the importance of professional support. Jeremy sought residential treatment for PTSD, and both of them undertook marriage counseling to learn how to deal with their challenges. As for family, Maggie said, “My parents are wonderful.” To this day, they take Jeremy to appointments when Maggie can’t, and they have him and their 2-year old son Jack over for dinner whenever Maggie works late.
Jeremy also discovered Project Healing Waters, an organization that has been therapeutic for him, offering a kind of brotherhood of fellow fly fishers. He recently took first place in his region for fly-tying, and now owns his own business, Custom Rod and Angler Supply.
Above all, Maggie and Jeremy now have Jack, their two-year son. He gives new meaning to their lives and, Maggie adds, inspires Jeremy “to be a better person for our family and especially for Jack.”
While the Maggie that the Dole Caregivers’ Foundation chose is a devoted wife and mother, self-aware in new ways, she also maintains a professional career, softball coaching activities and community service. With a master’s degree in reading education K-12 and a doctorate in educational leadership, Maggie is currently the literacy specialist at Vernon-Verona-Sherrill Middle School. She is also the girls’ varsity assistant softball coach for the Syracuse City School District.
Adding Dole Fellow to her list of accomplishments is simply part of Maggie’s fundamental operating principle.
“If you’re going to be part of something, you have to participate!” she said.
Maggie put that into practice in the political arena in April, when she spoke at a press conference with Sen. Chuck Schumer. The event was the culmination of meetings she and other caregivers held with both Sen. Schumer and Congressman John Katko, to make substantial improvements to the Veterans’ Administration Caregivers Support Program.
While Maggie keeps everyone else going, who keeps her going?
“He does!” she said, referring to Jeremy.
When teaching Family-to-Family classes for NAMI, one of Maggie’s favorite moments is when she can tell other caregivers, “Lots of people get to fall in love once. Not everyone gets to fall in love with the same person twice. But that’s what I did!”