Claxton resident Britnee Kinard received the prestigious Lincoln Caregiver Award last month in an exclusive award dinner ceremony, followed by a concert, at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts Concert Hall in Washington, D.C.
An initiative by the Friars Club through its foundation, the Lincoln Awards recognizes outstanding achievement and excellence in providing opportunities and support to veterans and military families.
Presented for the first time ever, the Lincoln Awards are named in honor of President Abraham Lincoln, specifically referencing his second inaugural address to the nation that includes, in part, these words: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”
Kinard has worked tirelessly as a caregiver for her husband, U.S. Army Sgt. Douglas Hamilton Kinard Jr., and advocated for him and other veterans, following her husband’s injuries sustained March 15, 2005, from an improvised explosive device while deployed to Iraq.
Hamilton Kinard was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and memory loss, but returned to duty until 2010 when health issues, including severe headaches and pain in the hips and lower back, caused a medical board to determine that he could no longer do his job for the Army.
Britnee Kinard battled for months with the bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans Affairs for an accurate diagnosis, clarification of disability benefits and other medical care issues and costs.
But her biggest struggle came when she pursued adding a four-legged caregiver to the home.
“Hamilton is 6 feet and 250 pounds, and I was pregnant with our first son,” said Britnee Kinard. “I started looking into service dogs, mobility service animals. I went to the VA, and they laughed at me.”
Kinard doesn’t like being told “no” when it comes to veterans’ benefits. She knew that service animals had been approved since 2006 for veterans who were blind or deaf or with spinal cord or traumatic brain injuries. But her research showed that very few service animals had been provided, and very little financial assistance had been given.
Kinard persisted, fought, called and wrote for more than 18 months to get Gunner, the dog she eventually purchased with her own money, approved for her husband’s care. And just before getting their four-legged assistant, the Kinards’ then 3-year-old son was diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, Mixed Receptive/Expressive Language Disorder and Stephens-Johnson Syndrome.
“Once we got Gunner approved and I realized how difficult it was and I thought about that a lot of veterans don’t have the support system my husband did, that’s when I realized I needed to do more,” she said. “I knew the VA inside and out now.”
With that thought, Kinard and her husband started the SD Gunner Fund, a nonprofit that provides financial assistance to veterans and children who currently have or are in need of service animals, often providing funding for veterinary care or needed mobility harnesses.
So when Kinard received a call from someone in Washington, D.C., last fall, she said her first thought was: “Oh, goodness, I have done ticked somebody off.”
Unbeknownst to Kinard, two friends, Kaysie Smith, a photographer for SD Gunner Fund, and Cindy Thigpen, a Claxton resident who volunteers often with Veterans of Foreign wars and the American Legion, with help from Kinard’s husband, had nominated her for the prestigious award.
“Even when he explained, I still thought it was a prank,” Britnee Kinard said. “I almost hung up on him.”
But, she didn’t hang up and, several months later, Kinard found herself on the red carpet in Washington with her husband and service dog. Thigpen accompanied them, and when Smith couldn’t make the trip, Kinard invited friend and Claxton Enterprise staff writer, LeeAnna Tatum.
With only 10 award recipients honored at the event, Kinard found herself in notable company, like Ken Fisher, CEO of the Fisher House Foundation, whose program has built 64 houses that provide for families of hospitalized military personnel and veterans. And Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, whose bionic arm invention revolutionized prosthetics for wounded warriors. And Bruce Springsteen, who received the entertainer award for giving back to veterans.
“I was scared to death,” Kinard said of the event. “I was so nervous. I had to do an interview with PBS. I had all these people around me, scientists, entertainers, the wealthy who have staff members to write their speeches … and then you have me.”
Kinard was one of three female recipients and the only one chosen from the Deep South.
“I couldn’t decide what to wear. Everyone was in suits. The other two women, one lady had a formal, sequined dress and one with a Sunday dress,” she said. “I had on blue jeans with a leather jacket and dress shirt. But when Dean Kamen walked in wearing military boots, Carhartt jeans and a Carhartt button-down, I said, ‘I’m good.’”
And, apparently, she was good. When Kinard gave her obligatory recipient speech, she received much applause and the only standing ovation of the night.
“It’s not every day that someone pats us caregivers on the back and says, ‘thank you,’” she said. “But taking care of my husband and training others to do the same is a full-time job. It is exhausting, but so worth the payoff. I hope that this recognition lets other caregivers know that you are not alone.”
Back home, Kinard continues the battle for Hamilton — and ultimately, all veterans — tirelessly, with these words ringing in her head: “My husband went overseas to fight for my rights. The least I can do is fight for his.”