Anyone who walks through the halls of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is moved by the sight of the wounded warriors recovering from sacrifices made on the battlefield. They are struck by both the extent of their wounds and their determination to overcome them.
Yet many visitors do not recognize another remarkable group of people standing among these warriors – often right by their side. They are the spouses, mothers, fathers and siblings carrying out their unanticipated, often lifelong duties as military and veteran caregivers.
I first observed these caregivers when I served as one myself for my husband, Bob, during his extended stay at Walter Reed in 2010. I saw a mother and father trading shifts watching over their only son as he recovered from 40 separate surgeries after a devastating rocket-propelled grenade attack. When his father traveled back to Mississippi for work, he sent his son daily Scripture verses to be taped on the walls of his little hospital room. In another room, a young wife slept by her husband’s side on a pallet. He was recovering from a double amputation as both struggled under the emotional weight of their new reality.
The role of a military or veteran caregiver is complicated, consuming and, at times, emotionally overwhelming. The experience often begins with a shocking phone call informing you that your loved one will be among the more than 60,000 service members who have returned from today’s wars suffering physical injuries. Other times, caregiving starts with the realization that the service member you support is one of the 725,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans struggling with the invisible wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.
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Military and veteran caregiving is a 24-hour-a-day responsibility. Caregivers take on family finances, legal matters and complex health care and benefits systems. Sadly, their loved ones are facing long delays in receiving the benefits they deserve. In addition, caregivers must learn how to perform basic medical procedures, avoid emotional triggers and support even the simplest daily tasks. Many will be caregivers for the rest of their lives.
Our nation knows very little about the sacrifices of these caregivers. The enormities of the challenges they face are difficult to comprehend.
We must do a far better job supporting our military families. I trust that once my fellow citizens learn more about the urgent needs of these caregivers, they will respond. That’s the American way. I invite you to join me in getting involved today.
Inspired by my experience at Bob’s side at Walter Reed, I launched Caring for Military Families: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation as a way to mobilize individual Americans, public and private sector leaders, corporations and nonprofit organizations. We began our work by commissioning the first comprehensive, evidence-based study on the challenges and needs of military and veteran caregivers through the RANDCorp. The results of the study will be announced in March.
As we await the findings, we are preparing the nation to respond. My 40-year career in public service has taught me that major breakthroughs occur by encouraging collaboration, investing in innovation, breaking down silos and focusing on solutions. I know our nation has a strong and generous spirit to take on this task.
The most effective way to impact the health, recovery and well-being of our wounded warriors is investing in a strong, well-supported caregiver. Together, we can ensure neither faces their challenges alone.