Huntington Beach woman selected as Dole Caregiver Fellow

Ann Nacino holds a picture of her husband Ray and father-in-law Oscar.
Ann Nacino holds a picture of her husband, Ray, and father-in-law Oscar, both U.S. Army veterans, at her home in Huntington Beach. Nacino was recently selected by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation as a national advocate for the millions of family members and friends who care for a wounded veteran at home.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
Share via

A loud firework boomed in northwest Huntington Beach on Wednesday evening, causing several car alarms to go off nearby.

Ann Nacino certainly understood why. The Fourth of July was just hours away. But the noise was still cause for concern.

“Oh my goodness gracious,” Nacino said, letting out a sigh. “At this point, this is where I go check on my husband.”


Nacino and her husband, Ray, are all about celebrating the country’s independence. She’s an Army wife who met her husband while they were in college at San Diego State in the mid-1990s.

Ann was attending on an ROTC scholarship. Ray, whose father also served in the Army, went to the ROTC office the next day and signed up. Following his 10 years of active service, the family moved to Huntington Beach with their three children in 2006.

The Nacinos, though, now have a more complicated relationship with the holiday. Ray doesn’t do so well with loud noises. In recent years, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following his deployments across Eastern Europe and the Middle East following 9/11.

Ann is striving to make a difference for Ray and others like him.

Ann Nacino shows pictures of herself and husband Ray, and another of Ray and her father-in-law.
Huntington Beach’s Ann Nacino shows pictures of herself and her husband, Ray, and another of Ray and her father-in-law, Oscar, both U.S. Army veterans.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

She was recently named as a 2024 fellow for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, which was founded to empower, support and honor the nation’s military caregivers. Nacino, one of 15 caregivers selected nationwide, will represent her peers in local and national advocacy initiatives, including a trip to Washington, D.C. in September for the ninth annual national convening.

The convening will also feature the unveiling of a new RAND Corp. study: “America’s Hidden Heroes: Emerging from the Shadows.”

Ann Nacino said her husband was at first fine following his active duty, working as a mechanical engineer, but he experienced an episode a few years after the family moved to Huntington Beach.

“A few years ago, another incident happened that reopened the wound,” she said. “It’s been hard to close the wound. We’ve made a lot of progress in these last few years. It’s not the same. Going to Disneyland is not as easy as, ‘Hey, let’s get in the car and go to Disneyland.’ We have to plan for things.”

Her search for resources led her to the Veterans Affairs office in Long Beach, which connected her to the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.

Nacino, a social worker who got her master’s from Cal State Fullerton this year, said she eventually realized that she was a caregiver to her husband, not just a spouse, when he had to be hospitalized with severe post-traumatic stress. She also considers their children — Josh is 24, Jonah is 23 and Katie is 19 — caregivers as well as hidden heroes.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that nearly 5.5 million caregivers are assisting veterans with daily-life activities and medical tasks, 70% of those being a spouse or partner. But the Nacino family is Filipino American, and she said there’s a stigma around mental health concerns in that community.

Ann Nacino met her husband, Ray, in college, when they were attending San Diego State.
Ann Nacino met her husband, Ray, in college, when they were attending San Diego State.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“I didn’t see it as being a caregiver, I was just his wife, doing what I was supposed to do,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing with caregivers, that they don’t identify as caregivers. Self-identification is a big thing with the foundation.”

On the trip to the East Coast, fellows will have opportunities to share their experiences with elected officials, and they are also able to engage with stakeholders and allies in the business, entertainment, faith and nonprofit communities.

“Social work involves advocacy, and now I’m a position to advocate on a larger scale,” Nacino said. “To have been selected is definitely an honor. I saw it as an opportunity. At first, I definitely had to get my husband’s buy-in. I said, ‘If I do this, I’m going to be telling our story. I became a caregiver because of you, and how you’re living life right now.’ He was very supportive of it.”

The foundation is pushing for the passage of H.R. 8371, the Senator Elizabeth Dole 21st Century Veterans Healthcare and Benefits Improvement Act, which includes several bipartisan and bicameral proposals to reform and improve the delivery of healthcare, benefits and services at the VA for veterans, their families and their survivors.

Nacino, 48, has a two-year term as a fellow. She’s one of seven from California, but the only one from Orange County.

“The diversity of this year’s class enriches our mission as we continue to support the hidden heroes caring for those who serve,” said Steve Schwab, chief executive of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, in a statement. “These fellows will strengthen our national network of caregivers from all backgrounds and contribute to solving the systemic issues that continue to affect the lives of caregivers, veterans and their families.”

Ann and Ray Nacino have lived in Huntington Beach for nearly 20 years and have three children.
Ann and Ray Nacino have lived in Huntington Beach for nearly 20 years and have three children.
(Courtesy of Ann Nacino)

Nacino said Ray is currently unemployed, but he does things to manage his symptoms like taking care of the plants at home or dealing with home improvements. This past school year, he also liked to drive Katie back up to school at Cal State Northridge on Monday mornings during her freshman year.

Those trips cause Ann to worry a bit because she knows how quickly Ray’s mind can wander if he hears or sees something that’s a trigger for his PTSD. She checks in with him often via text message.

For the Fourth of July, she said the family now stays far away from the big parade on Main Street, choosing to watch a movie at home — loudly — to try to drown out firework noises.

Friday was actually the Nacinos’ wedding anniversary, and it’s clear how much Ann loves her husband.

“We still have those episodes where he feels like he’s less than,” she said. “As I’ve told the kids, he’s different, yes, but he’s not any less of a daddy. He’s not any less of a husband.

“He’s different, but not less than.”