Nominations are closed. Come back February 3 to meet the candidates!

Kara Gagnon

Branch: Army

Duty Station: Fort Campbell

Number of Deployments: 3

Number of PCS's: 4

Share your military spouse story:
After growing up in a small town in the middle of Oklahoma for almost 20 years, I met my husband during my senior year of undergraduate school at Oklahoma State University. Though he was oh so charming, I had full blinders on at the time and was completely focused on my next move to Tennessee for pharmacy school. I like to joke that husband had to wait eight years before we ever went on a date, hah! We had remained friends over the years, reconnected when he was stationed in Italy and began dating in 2012. From there, well—we call it the Gagnon Express. Historically focused on school and residency, I transitioned to dating someone across the ocean for 1.5 years, then got married after 3 months of engagement, got a house, a pup and then promptly grew a human—all within a couple years! Haha. Reality of course hit when the whirlwind romance that started with carefree Italy frolicking abruptly twirled right into military courses and trainings. We quickly recognized the need for counseling to learn effective communication and conflict resolution skills, but time never seemed to allow for it. We then moved to our next location where we would welcome another tiny human and husband would deploy another couple times—all with continued unaddressed marital and mental health needs. It was during this time that I became board certified in psychiatric pharmacy and really began to speak out about mental health awareness. I should note that my mental health advocacy journey began as a family member of someone with a mental health condition long before my husband or the military. It just happened to be that over the years as a military spouse, I started to realize how my experiences and knowledge could help others in this community. Husband and I have since made it a priority to address our own mental health and our marriage to best serve our family. I am now an eternally open book to fellow spouses and service members to help however I can as they navigate trying times.

Share an example of your leadership experience within the military community:
I am actively involved with a mental health nonprofit organization that promotes mental health awareness, advocacy, education and support both locally and nationwide. I currently serve as the Board President of a local affiliate and work with fellow board members and volunteers to address the needs of military service members and their families. I also serve as an instructor of an education program designed specifically for families, caregivers and military service members with mental health challenges. Professionally, I am a psychiatric pharmacist who continuously works to address both individual and family needs in whatever way I can. In the military community, that often begins with clarifying misconceptions and providing contact information, education and linkage for further assistance. I recently became certified as a Mental Health First Aid instructor in hopes to continue to foster open discussion about mental health in the military community.

Describe your involvement in the military community:
Over the past nine years, I have served the military community directly in a variety of ways from volunteerism for local projects to receiving training to serve as a Care Team member to provide practical assistance and emotional support to family members in need of such after a casualty. I have had opportunities to attend FRG trainings at both the local and USASOC levels and walk away every time with complete admiration for the spouses that surround me. The enthusiastic and tireless efforts of those around me inspires me to carry on with my own efforts to support spouses and their service members in hopes that families can truly thrive throughout their time in the military.

Describe how you support your community:
I constantly strive to expand and share my professional knowledge and leadership experiences in whatever ways are helpful to the military community. Through my instructor role of the education program previously mentioned, I am able to address the unique needs of family, caregivers and friends of those who have served or are currently serving our country. I continuously work to create open dialogue about the challenges our families frequently face and offer potential solutions to common issues and concerns. As a mother of three young boys with a full-time career, I often find myself wishing I had more time to be even more involved in spouse groups specifically. As a fervent proponent of mental wellness and self-care, though, I have to force myself to practice what I preach. Though I am often unable to attend meetings, any military spouse and/or service member who knows me is aware that I am always available and willing to assist if ever needed.

What do you advocate for? Why?
I endlessly advocate for mental health awareness in hopes to end the stigma associated with mental health challenges. Just as everyone has physical health, every one of us has mental health and wellbeing as well. The need to address mental health challenges of service members, spouses and family members has been evident for quite some time now. Funding has increased to provide additional programs and supports, yet these issues continue to persist. I have come to the realization that all of the high-quality programs and resources in the country will not effectively improve these outcomes until people feel comfortable utilizing them without fear of repercussions, either in their career or socially. By normalizing these important discussions, I hope others begin to reach out for assistance when needed in order to be the best version of themselves—for them as an individual and for their loved ones.

How have you spread the message of your platform/advocacy?
I regularly share mental health education, resources and experiences through my designated website and social media page. Though parenting three little ones while continuing to work full time during a pandemic greatly diminished my time to create informative blog posts on my website, I have continued to share material on the social media page. In addition to these written resources, I have also had the honor of speaking at events in both personal and professional capacities. I take any and every opportunity afforded to me to share the message of mental health awareness and to note that there is HOPE of recovery and genuine wellbeing.

What do you hope to accomplish with the AFI Military Spouse of the Year® title?
I was wildly humbled upon receiving this nomination for AFI Military Spouse of the Year. After the initial shock dissipated, I realized what a wonderful platform this would be to spread the word about the importance of mental health. The calling that our spouses have answered to is no doubt noble, as are the achievements that spouses and children continue to accomplish while supporting their endeavors. We often speak about our strength and resiliency; how we always adapt and overcome obstacles. I challenge you to also recognize the power of vulnerability, though. I hope to show that true courage and strength is shown when we admit when we have challenges and need help. It comes full circle, as someone who ensures they are the best version of themselves is then able to give back wholeheartedly to the cause they love so much.

Nominations

Kara is a military spouse who is a passionate advocate for the mental health of the military community. She asks the hard questions to those that can affect change, even when it is not a popular topic. I met Kara when we both signed up to become facilitators for the NAMI Homefront course. This course is a pychoeducation workshop for those who have loved ones or friends connected to the military, both past and present. We have now facilitated several different workshops together, educating loved ones and friends on the mental health challenges of AD service members and Veterans. She is now President of NAMI KC. One of the last classes we facilitated together, she came to the stark realization that not one AD spouse had ever been in our classes. I can still remember the look on her face. She has a personal experience with mental health and is also a psychiatric pharmacist. She empowers others in her community to continue with their goals in life while being a military spouse.
- by Shawn Moore