Why Help America’s Hidden Heroes, Our Military Caregivers?

America has been at war longer than any time in its history. Thanks to advances in battlefield medicine, thousands of our troops–who would have perished in the past–are now surviving. However, many return with devastating wounds, both visible and invisible, requiring care long after they have left the military health care system. So who is caring for our wounded warriors?

The answer is over 5.5 million spouses, parents, siblings, and other loved ones, performing a stunning array of roles and functions. For instance, they may need to assist severely injured service members with normal activities of daily life: bathing, dressing, feeding, toileting, and walking or using a wheelchair. They are critical members of the healthcare team: they administer medications or injections; manage pain, nausea, or fatigue; keep wounds clean and infection free; assist with rehabilitation; and watch for treatment side effects or new symptoms. Care may be labor-intensive or extremely burdensome depending on the number and severity of wounds, injuries, or illnesses. They often provide care continuously, day and night, for caregivers are sometimes the only available, knowledgeable, or trusted person to provide such care. 

Beyond tending to a veteran’s physical injuries, military caregivers are mental health counselors. They provide emotional support and help their loved ones manage mental health symptoms. Data from the U.S. Department of Defense and studies of mental health problems suggest 30.3% of those deployed may have experienced Traumatic Brain Injury or meet criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or depression. Caregivers play a significant role in balancing their loved one’s emotional stability.2

Caregiver responsibilities do not end there. These individuals often become, by default, the family’s legal and financial representative. Furthermore, many are charged with caring for children and providing an income for their family – nearly all-encompassing endeavors in their own right. In some cases, the time demands of caretaking may result in lost jobs, lost wages, and possible loss of health insurance.

Though caregiver needs are many, no national strategy for supporting them exists. Nor has there been adequate research conducted on their behalf. Many toil in relative obscurity. As they put the well being of their loved ones over and above their own, caregivers accumulate a physical and emotional toll over days, months, and years that is nearly overwhelming.

Just as Americans honor the contributions of the men and women who serve in the armed forces on their behalf, so too should we honor the sacrifices of their devoted caregivers – hidden heroes who need our help now. Please stand with us as we strive to elevate this critical issue to national attention. By researching the many challenges they face, spurring innovation across their systems of support, raising awareness of their needs, and empowering these selfless individuals, we can ensure that our nation’s military caregivers receive the honor, respect, and support they have nobly earned.

1Tanielian, Ramchand, Fisher, Sims, Harris, and Harrell. Hidden Heroes: Our Nation’s Military Caregivers. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

2RAND study of military caregivers, Phase 1 results