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Why I’m Committed to Supporting Military Caregivers, Our ‘Hidden Heroes’

by SENATOR ELIZABETH DOLE

Helen Perry, a U.S. Army nurse, welcomed her husband Matt home from Afghanistan thinking he was one of the lucky ones. During his deployment, two improvised explosive devices detonated terrifyingly close to him. Miraculously, he survived both with few visible scars. Helen felt fortunate to have him home, alive and healthy.

Unfortunately, like so many veterans, Matt’s severest wounds could not be seen. Over time, he began suffering from seizures. Doctors determined they were the result of a slow bleed from an undetected traumatic brain injury. The seizures sometimes led to cardiac arrest. After one horrific episode, Helen found herself checking Matt’s pulse, expecting to watch him die. Thankfully, Matt survived, but one side of his brain was no longer functioning. He was left without memories of his time in Iraq and Afghanistan, his childhood, and even his marriage. Suddenly, Helen’s partner in life could not work, drive, get dressed or even feed himself. In Helen’s words, she went, “from a two-person team to a one-person team.”

Helen Perry is now one of the 5.5 million hidden heroes caring for a loved one who suffered wounds, injuries or illnesses as a result of military service. The longest period of war in U.S. history is now being waged in homes like Helen’s all across the country. Military caregivers didn’t sign up for service, but they are selflessly taking on caregiving duties with little consideration for their own health and well-being. It is a societal crisis that merits a national response.

Research shows that military caregivers are more likely to care for a loved one with a complex combination of visible and invisible wounds. In many cases, military caregivers are younger than civilian caregivers, which results in greater struggles with financial challenges, social isolation, and physical and emotional distress. Military caregivers, particularly those caring for someone who served after September 11, 2001, are less likely to have health insurance or regular access to a healthcare provider. They are also more likely to struggle with balancing caregiving and employment.

We also know that this new reality on the home front is impacting children in the home, many of whom are also serving as caregivers. Without the proper resources and support, the negative outcomes of military caregiving could last years, if not generations.

As a nation, we owe these hidden heroes a far greater level of support. Military caregivers provide $14 billion worth of care to our veterans every year. They are an unpaid workforce who cover a tremendous cost that would otherwise be paid by our nation.

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation is leading a movement to awaken our nation to the military caregiver crisis and ensure America’s hidden heroes do not shoulder their incredible responsibilities alone. We are working to champion reforms across the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense. And we are advocating for new levels of support through Congress and local governments. We know, however, that the support and involvement of individual Americans will have the greatest impact in the everyday lives of caregivers.

There are a number of ways you can get involved in supporting hidden heroes:

  • Neighbors preparing meals, helping with yard work, or picking up groceries
  • Faith communities organizing free childcare services
  • Employers offering remote jobs and flexible work schedules
  • City leaders signing on to become one of our Foundation’s Hidden Heroes Cities, identifying caregivers and local sources of support
  • All Americans helping to encourage those caring for a loved one who served to self-identify as a military caregiver, a vital first step to getting them connected to key resources and a strong support network

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation helps coordinate and make possible these types of support activities through our Hidden Heroes Campaign, chaired by Tom Hanks. If you are caring for a veteran, or you wish to support someone who is, please join us and get involved at hiddenheroes.org. The sacrifices of America’s hidden heroes are not only made on behalf of their warriors but on behalf of our nation. We cannot let them walk their journeys alone.

This essay was featured in the November 3rd edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

SENATOR ELIZABETH DOLE

A native of North Carolina, the former Secretary of Transportation, Secretary of Labor, President of the American Red Cross, and North Carolina Senator, Elizabeth Dole established the Elizabeth Dole Foundation in 2012 to raise awareness and support for America’s 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers. Elizabeth was inspired to take on this mission after her husband Bob Dole was hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Hospital for nearly a year and she saw first hand the challenges facing the young spouses, parents and other loved ones caring for our nation’s wounded warriors.

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