MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
Her phone vibrates and a ringtone blares as she receives a video call from her husband. Excitement quickly turned to panic as his anxious face and energy projected through the screen.
She listens, baffled and worried as he explained he was lost within the familiar surroundings of the town they had lived in for two years. Her instincts instruct her to physically drive him home and ensure his safety, then reality set in she was deployed thousands of miles away.
That call made Master Sgt. Stephanie Ruepp, 38th Rescue Squadron unit training manager and resource advisor, realize her husband’s previous combat related injuries were taking their toll. A toll they’d often talked about, but didn’t realize would come 11-years into their marriage and change their daily lives forever.
“It was really scary, I video chatted with him the rest of the way to make sure he got home,” said Ruepp. “That was the moment I realized the extent to which I’d have to take care of him. Over the years, he’d gotten confused about where places we frequently visited were, but I was always there to help him.”
Over his 23-year Air Force career, Ret. Senior Master Sgt. Donal Ruepp had three mission-related traumatic brain injuries requiring two metal plates to be placed in his face. He also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and the multiple symptoms it brings.
“His traumatic brain injuries happened before we were married, so I’ve been a caregiver our entire marriage, or 14 and a half years,” said Ruepp. “I pray a lot and my faith gives me comfort knowing there’s more after this part of our journey. It also keeps me from (only) thinking about my wants and needs, but remembering that it’s about our family too.”
Throughout their marriage, Ruepp has seen her husband’s health and quality of life deteriorate due to his PTSD symptoms and three failed spinal surgeries, with the latest one in 2017, leaving him unable to walk. Instead of keeping that experience, knowledge, and understanding to herself, she now wants to use to help other caregivers.
The Elizabeth Dole Foundation Military and Veteran caregiver fellows program recently announced the 2018- 2019 class, naming Ruepp the Georgia representative. In doing so, she will be a voice for 5.5 million caregivers, a mission she was hesitant to accept.
“She cares about her husband and about people, so why not translate that care into a voice for other people in similar situation,” said Senior Master Sgt. Kenneth Marshall, 38th RQS superintendent. “Her personality is perfect for this and that’s why I felt she should do it, so my role was to nudge her to do it and keep her motivated throughout the process.”
As a fellow, Ruepp will help caregivers provide anything to improve the quality of life for their loved one; from wheelchair accessible vehicles and home modifications to finding nearby support groups and treatment facilities.
“People who don’t know where to go for help contact the foundation for answers,” said Ruepp. “A lot of caregivers feel like they are by themselves, they have no hope or help, but the best help starts with giving them information and that’s what we do.
“The resources are incredible,” Ruepp added. “I can call someone and describe a problem someone else is experiencing that I can’t fix or haven’t seen before or know nothing about and they can help me help someone else get through it.”
To help her get through her daily challenges, Ruepp’s mother-in-law cares for her husband while Ruepp is at work, their oldest child helps shuttle the younger children to and from activities, and her work family supports her with whatever she needs.
“Sergeant Ruepp makes it easy to provide latitude in her daily schedule by excelling in her performance, in her primary duties and anything else we throw at her,” said Marshall. “Aside from that, we support her by listening to what she has to say and we do it better than most.”
While helping others, Ruepp also hopes to use the resources to help her husband’s health improve.
“We’ve been told by multiple doctors that he won’t get any better, but he hasn’t been getting worse, so it’s been steady,” said Ruepp. “He’s awesome and has always done the best he can with what he has. I want to make sure he knows there are people out there, besides me, who care. We want to help him get a better quality of life and to make sure he sees that light at the end of the tunnel.”