A U.S. Army veteran opens up about her experience after being diagnosed with MS and how she took 10 years to come to terms with it
By Courtney Verrill
Jennifer Steele poses with four out of her six medals at the 37th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Cincinnati on July 25, 2017. (Photo by Courtney Verrill)
After attending college for one year, U.S. Army veteran Jennifer Steele knew something was missing. College didn’t fit in her life the way she anticipated, so she knew she had to find something different. That’s where the military came in. She realized she wanted to serve her country and become a soldier more than anything.
“I was interested in the military because I could basically start my own life while doing something special,” Steele says.
Both of her grandfathers served in the military, and she respected and looked up to them tremendously. Steele also believes in standing up to bullies, and joining the military was a way for her to do so.
“I’ve always believed in standing up to bullies, and that’s what you do when you’re a soldier. You stand up to leaders that mistreat their people and make people’s lives better,” she says.
The military made Steele feel like she had a place in this world and like she had endless family members. The feeling of being part of a team was something Steele treasured and she was happy to serve her country.
Steele met her now-husband, Ray, while they were in the Army together. They were in the same place for basic training, same advanced individual training and were coincidentally assigned to the same platoon for their permanent jobs. Steele found everything she wanted in the military and it was where she felt she truly belonged. She had met her husband, served her country and even reached her goal and made sergeant. Then, her life started to take a turn.
Her legs slowly started to fail. Steele started tripping and falling while she was running and she couldn’t figure out what was wrong. It wasn’t long after Steele made sergeant that she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2004 and everything she had worked for was gone.
Jennifer Steele hugs her son, Ethan, after competing in Slalom at the 37th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Cincinnati on July 25, 2017. (Photo by Courtney Verrill)
“When the doctor told me I had MS, I felt like my life was being ripped away,” she says. “I loved being in the military and I couldn’t stay after my diagnosis. I was very angry about that for a long time.”
After being diagnosed, Steele felt she was a slave to MS. It completely took over her world in a negative way and took away one of the most important things in her life.
“I still tear up when I think about the day I was diagnosed, because it takes me right back to all of those feelings when MS took away what I wanted to do with my life – being a soldier,” Steele says. “I think that bothered me more than being diagnosed.”
She and Ray were not married when Steele was diagnosed. Steele was afraid the news would be a burden to Ray’s life, so she told him should would understand if he wanted to leave and take the easy way out.
“Instead, he stayed with me and married me,” Steele says. “He didn’t care. He loves me more than I ever thought possible, and I know how lucky I am to have such an amazing man to share my life with.”
Ray’s love for Steele is very strong and he wanted to support her more than anything. They married in August of 2005, one year after her diagnosis. Steele was happy about her marriage, but the stages of grief still consumed her.
The five stages of grief are no stranger to Steele. She has lived through each cycle for prolonged periods of time more than once. It came to her in waves. After her diagnosis, she was in denial that this was her life. Steele would tell herself that she shouldn’t have to take pills to feel normal.
She was depressed for many years until 2007 when she found out she was pregnant with her son, Ethan. The news of her pregnancy helped her get out of her depression until after she gave birth when her MS was so bad that she couldn’t hold her newborn child.
“I got very weak and my legs could hardly support me,” Steele says. “I was so unstable and all I wanted to do was be able to take care of my baby boy, but I couldn’t. I felt like I was failing him.”
This was result of a bad flare of her MS. She tried to get treatment, but her doctor didn’t take her seriously and blamed it on postpartum depression. Steele was having such a hard time not being able to care for her son that she looked for a different doctor who would better fit her needs. After weeks of searching, she found a new doctor and got the treatment she needed. It took over two months, but Steele was able to get well enough to care for Ethan and work towards coming out of her depression.
“Probably ten years went by before I finally realized that being angry or sad about this disease wasn’t going to change anything, and I refused to be a slave to it any more. My son had a lot to do with that. I realized that I just had to find a new way to be involved with his life, to be the mother he deserved.”
Steele struggled for many years, but she is finally in a place where she has accepted her diagnosis and will no longer let it take over her life. For years Ray and her physical therapist tried to convince her to get involved in sports. It wasn’t until this year that Steele took their advice and competed in July’s 37th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Cincinnati.
“I don’t prefer doing things for myself. I feel like I’m being selfish,” she says. “I’d rather take care of others. He [Ray] told me that I can’t be so determined to take care of others that I don’t take care of myself. He told me that it had been so long since I had done anything for myself, and that it was time for that to end.”
Steele had an amazing time at the NVWG for many reasons. She got to play softball – her favorite sport – for the first time in 18 years. She also got to be around 600 other injured veterans, which brought back the comradery and feeling of family she had when she was in the Army.
“The bond with the veterans at the NVWG was even more special [than when I was in the Army],” Steele says. “We are all in the same boat. We understand each other in a way that able bodied people don’t. We would sit and share our experiences, our daily difficulties, and I learned about a lot of things that I didn’t even know were available to disabled people. These people have taught me that there isn’t anything I can’t do, I just have to do it a different way.”
The NVWG gave her a chance to be part of a team again, which is something Steele cherished. She was a novice at the NVWG this year, but left with six gold medals, which is a great accomplishment for a novice athlete. Her only regret throughout the week was that she didn’t get involved with the NVWG sooner.
When it comes to living with MS, Steele doesn’t want others to go through the stages of grieving as severely as she did.
“Find a support group, reach out and talk to others with this disease,” she says. “There’s nothing I can say that will make the shock of it any better, but I can promise that as hopeless as it seems, it won’t always be that way. I’d tell them that they will be angry, they will be sad, they will be in denial and that they might think they can bargain their way out of it – but someday, they will come out to the other side of their grief and they will see that this is not a death sentence. They will be able to keep living their life and do anything they want, they’ll just have to find a different way to do things. Don’t go through it alone. That’s what I did and it was very difficult for me. I think if I had reached out to others with MS, I might have dealt with it better.”