WASHINGTON — Michelle McIntyre-Brewer may understand the military health care systems better than anyone else in the world.
She’s not a health care specialist, or a Defense Department employee, or a trained social worker. She’s just a military spouse determined to help out where she can.
“I had one couple where the wife had miscarried, and she went septic because of that, and separately the [active-duty] husband ended up with a punctured lung,” she said. “They had three children at home. The rest of the family was civilians. Somebody had to step in and help, to make sure they all got what they need.”
McIntyre-Brewer, an Air Force brat who married a soldier, has a near-cult-hero status within the tight-knit military community. Last fall, she was recognized by the White House with the nation’s Citizens Medal, for “exemplary deeds of service for their country.”
She juggles dozens of cases each week, helping get injured troops’ voices heard, moving patients across the country to receive better care, and counseling parents of special needs kids on their rights and benefits.
“People think I have this massive underground network and knowledge … but really, I just call people up until someday says, ‘OK, I’ll help you,’” she said, laughing.
The work is a far cry from her original charity goals. In 2003, she founded the group Soldier’s List as a way to send care packages to deployed troops who needed toiletries, candy, or simply a morale boost from home.
But over the years, many of those same troops began contacting her with problems their families were facing back home. At the same time, she learned the shortcomings and headaches of the military medical system.
She lost one son at birth, and her daughter Lorelei was born with a heart defect. Her adopted son Jiaqun has battled cancer his whole life. Caring for them has taught her uncomfortable lessons about what Tricare will cover and which private hospitals will work with military families.
So she started using her experience and contacts to help others. At first, it was a few calls related to problems in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Today, it’s up to 40 different cases at a time.
McIntyre-Brewer has a soft spot for children in need. One of her current cases (not connected to the military) is fighting with private health care insurers over the best surgery options for an infant in need of heart surgery.
She has also had to learn the ins and outs of the Department of Veterans Affairs health care processes, as more and more requests come in from troops leaving the service.
“Navigating the [health care] systems becomes a full-time job in itself for these families,” she said. “Some will call me, say ‘I’ve tried this,’ and I consult with them. For others, I need to get on the phone and be advocates for them.”
She shut down the charity’s website a few years ago, when the requests for help came flooding in too rapidly. McIntyre-Brewer said it’s not that she doesn’t want to help. It’s just that she likes to focus on the most difficult cases.
“I’ll work with anybody,” she said. “But somebody who is a little more connected, I might wait a little longer to help than a junior enlisted, someone who has a harder time getting through the chain of command.
“I’ve got a long list of people who give me referrals now. When people know things are dire enough, they contact me.”
All the work is done through her suburban Maryland home, where she also home-schools her three children. Her husband, Stephen, has been deployed for much of the last five years. She said the many demands on her time force her to stay organized.
And her children get into the work as well. Her oldest, Cavan, two years ago launched Socks for Vets, which distributes gifts (including socks, clothes, and sock puppets) for veterans and wounded warriors. Loreleo and Jiaqun often accompany them on trips to visit wounded troops at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
McIntyre-Brewer said she doesn’t get discouraged by the workload, but she does get upset that many civilians are surprised she needs to intervene to help troops get the care they deserve.
“I do think the general public is well-intended,” she said. “I just don’t think they’re well informed. I think people would be upset if they knew how difficult this can be.”