Two Army Colonels Battle Alzheimer’s - Courage Beyond the Battlefield
My dad, a 31-year soldier, is living the Army values every hard day. - Guest Blogger Colonel (Retired) Bob McAleer
In 1995, General Dennis Reimer of the U.S. Army defined seven core values as the foundation to the Army professi on: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal Courage.
As a former soldier and leadership practitioner, I quickly came to believe that leadership and values are learned behaviors. You’re not born with them. In a similar way, deciding to exude values isn’t enough. Values must be taught, internalized, practiced, and reinforced.
In my early Army years, physical Courage was often at the forefront. I experienced that first at West Point, where cadets are placed in stressful situations to produce growth and resilience. I vividly recall learning to control adrenaline in boxing class, enabling me to endure and excel in the many bouts during the semester-long course.
Later, as a combat leader, I needed to prepare myself and my units to act decisively in the face of fear and danger. Frankly, after several years in the Army, I had little doubt about my own units’ performance in combat. Given proper leadership and training, I always thought physical Courage was the norm in our ranks. I had enormous confidence in the American soldier.
This story is not about the Courage of a soldier in a combat situation. This is a story of a soldier's Courage outside of combat. This story is about my father.
Over Christmas, I took my family to Sequim, Washington to visit family. While I’ve had a tough time articulating what I witnessed, what I saw showed far greater Courage—and character—than anything a soldier could ever do. It’s probably something that happens repeatedly across America—and I find it truly courageous and heroic. Let me explain.
Seven years ago, my mother called my dad, lost, just a mile from their house, unable to find her way home. Today, my mom is seven years into Alzheimer’s. My 84-year old dad is her caretaker. Few parts of Mom’s brain still function well. She can recall music lyrics, correct spelling and grammar (she’s a former English teacher), and know when she’s being loved.
She is also aware of when she’s alone—even if left alone for a few minutes—and she fears abandonment. She barely speaks in sentences any longer, can’t follow most conversations, can’t easily find food in a bowl with a spoon, can’t find a bathroom in her own house, and often forgets what her relationship is to Dad and anyone else. She’s sometimes her normal pleasant self, but like many in her condition, can turn despondent and ornery, too. She lives in a confused state, oftentimes hallucinating.
Fortunately, a brother, sister, sister-in-law, and local woman all have weekly lunches, dinners, and visits with Mom, giving dad needed time to take care of business. Besides that, he’s on call 24 hours per day. I know it’s both emotionally and physically exhausting. Understandably, some around him have told Dad that it’s time to put my mom in a long-term memory care facility—and such a decision has certainly weighed heavily and may be the right choice.
Remarkably, despite the all-consuming care, Dad still mows an acre of grass himself and washes cars by hand. Dad remains highly engaged in their community, coordinating weekly Rotary speakers, lectoring at church, and volunteering for St. Vincent de Paul Society. There, he and Mom have taken a shift every fourth or fifth week for seven years since retirement, and were on duty just before Christmas as the Olympic Peninsula was blanketed by snow.
I noted Dad quietly and decisively handling several cases per day that week. On Christmas Eve, Dad had a couple cases that required action. After dishes were done and my kids were put to bed, he started up his ’82 VW Diesel pickup and slipped away to assist one person in paying an overdue utility bill and another with a tank of gas to take them through payday.
Not one to complain, I know Dad has been in significant pain lately from a chemo medicine that brings pain to his hands and feet. While there, he asked me to open a peanut butter jar. His stress level has been unusually high, too. He’s received concerning blood tests that show his stage 4 cancer may be worsening. He’s not said it, but I know he’s considered the very real possibility that he may be unable to take care of himself soon, nonetheless Mom. My siblings and I think those weeks and the last months or years—with the two separated--will be sad and hard. By God’s grace and their faith, we’ll help them find silver linings and peace.
At Christmas mass, the priest gave a homily on the poor. He said, “Listen to Jesus’ words: “What you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me.” I thought less about the poor than the vows my parents took to each other. Toward the end of the mass, my mom stood up confused while the rest of the congregation was sitting. She politely asked several nonsensical questions as I unsuccessfully tried to get her to sit down. For Dad, who was at the altar as a lector, that was an everyday occurrence. I wondered if it made other parishioners uncomfortable. After mass, a man approached me and said he had watched my parents for years. He told Dad showed them all a beautiful example of love.
The next night, after my family had gone to sleep, I heard my mother awake, anxiously complaining that she couldn’t breathe and that she needed immediate medical attention. I learned that my dad repeatedly checked her breathing, heart, and pulse but all seemed normal. She chastised and threatened Dad for his lack of urgency and care. It was the ornery side. As best he could, Dad patiently handled the situation with love and objectivity, though I know the two-hour episode weighed on him emotionally. Sometimes, love is really hard.
So many people in his position would choose a different path. At minimum, he could certainly stop volunteer activities. He also has every rational reason to put Mom in a long-term memory facility and focus on his own health. Nobody, including his children who love their mother dearly, would fault him if he did. Even we debate the way forward. What I do know is that Dad shows enormous Courage and character every day—and has done it without fanfare.
What he's doing is also far more difficult and courageous than anything my soldiers and I could ever have done in uniform. My dad, a 31-year soldier, is living the Army values every hard day: loyalty, duty, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal Courage. I don’t know where his strength has come from: his rural Iowa upbringing, his faith, or his time in the Army. It really is remarkable, and I hope my kids have absorbed that example. I know I have.
I (Dave) want to thank Bob for sharing this deeply personal example of Courage with all of us. As Bob said, Courage is a learned behavior. Bob’s dad is obviously a great model of the habit of Courage. Bob and I have been friends since we were freshmen together at West Point. I am blessed to have served with Bob and others in the USMA Class of 1988. Bob has exuded Courage in every aspect of his life like his dad.
Colonel (Retired) Bob McAleer served 27 years in the Army. He is a Ranger-qualified officer who spent nearly his entire career leading diverse combat units at home and abroad. Bob is currently CEO of Deft9 Solutions (https://www.linkedin.com/in/bobmcaleer/)
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