Amy Bushatz thought she was prepared to handle the potential challenges that would come after her husband Luke returned home from Afghanistan in 2009 with the 1-17 Infantry Battalion.
As the Director and Executive Editor of Military.com and a seasoned military spouse, she was well versed in the issues facing the military-connected community, but she didn’t realize the role of caregiver would be the toughest one she’d play.
Caregivers and the burdens they carry are frequently left out of conversations around mental health challenges. That’s what sparked the idea behind Unconditional, the first-ever feature documentary exploring the intersection of mental health and caregiving. The film follows three families’ journeys battling mental illness and navigating a path forward. It shows the power of relearning how to love.
“I have a very strong belief that when you have a story to share, that is a gift that you have the ability to give other people,” she said. The Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program Scholar agreed without hesitation when approached by a producer to share her family’s story in the film.
Luke sustained multiple traumatic brain injuries after experiencing multiple strikes by improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and coming close to mortar strikes during his deployment. Friends’ deaths became commonplace. His battalion lost over 20 soldiers in just a few short months.
“I had been in military media since 2010, so I knew about PTS,” Amy said. “I know about traumatic brain injury; I’ve heard those stories. I know about reintegration and all these things we talk about, but it really took a long time for me to understand that I was actually living that journey.”
At home, the burden of what was happening thousands of miles away started to affect Amy’s own health.
“From my perspective, I’m sitting four rows back from widows at a memorial service pretty much once a week for a long time as our battalion, and the brigade as a whole, sustained deaths,” Amy said. “That takes a toll, too.”
When their family moved from that unit after Luke came home from Afghanistan, they didn’t understand the level of posttraumatic stress and traumatic brain injury he was experiencing and what it would mean for them as a family moving forward.
He started to lean on substance abuse rather than getting the help he desperately needed. His few attempts to get care in his new unit at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, were unsuccessful. At their breaking point one night, crying on their bedroom floor, Amy gave him a choice between the Army, or getting out and working to recover for his family.
“We made a decision as a family that he would get out of active duty so that he could pursue healing from these things that he was really just starting to understand.”
The Bushatz family moved to Alaska in 2016 to begin a life of healing. That meant something different for each of them.
For Luke, it meant frequent VA appointments, a lot of time spent outdoors, helping other veterans, and focusing on his organization, Remedy Alpine, which serves the veteran community through guided excursions that facilitate personal growth and healing in outdoor spaces.
Amy and the kids prioritized their own health, put boundaries into place, and created space to talk about the challenges the family was facing. They also let others in to help. Organizations like Wounded Warrior Project and Soldiers’ Angels made an immeasurable difference in their healing process when they were at their lowest low, Amy said. She recalls the gift boxes from Soldiers’ Angels that she still receives on her doorstep as a veteran spouse. They continue to make a huge impact.
“It really does take a village,” she said. “I know that’s cliché to say, but my village includes a wide variety of military support organizations who have helped us. It looks like attending the Veteran Leadership Program, and being connected with other spouses, and understanding how to communicate this journey to other people.”
That’s what she wants others to take with them after watching the documentary. She hopes families going through the same challenges can understand that they aren’t alone, and there’s a community out there ready to support them.
“Our story isn’t just our story; it’s a lot of people’s stories,” she said. “I hope that the people who see this film, if they are experiencing the things that we have experienced, simply know that they are not alone and there is hope.”
The Bushatz family continues to pursue whole-life health every day in Alaska. Luke currently serves in the Alaska Army National Guard and is focused on veteran outdoor therapy. Amy continues her role as an editor, podcaster, and advocate. Their two boys also share a deep love of the outdoors.
The family is dedicated to the veteran community and continues to advocate for what Amy calls “posttraumatic growth.”
“The film ends, but the journey continues,” she said. “And part of that is continuing to talk about it publicly. Part of that is continuing to work on ourselves. Part of that is continuing to work on it with our community – with our veteran community and local community.”
Unconditional is streaming on pbs.org through July and on Apple TV and Amazon Prime indefinitely.
Anyone experiencing thoughts of suicide or needing to talk with a crisis counselor can reach out 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Dial 988 and press 1 for veterans. Additionally, veterans, service members, and their families who are interested in being connected to high-quality mental and brain health care can reach out at www.veterancheckin.org and get the support they need to start their mental health journey.