by Senator Elizabeth Dole
As I reflect on the national conversation we have initiated about military and veteran caregiving, one number continues to ring out in my mind – 5.5 million.
The RAND Corporation report my Foundation commissioned revealed that 5.5 million Americans are caring for ill or wounded service members and veterans. When I first heard the figure, it astounded me. To think that so many loved ones have been quietly caring for those who have cared for us with such little support is a wake up call for our nation. Many of these caregivers have been serving in this role for years and even decades, while others will serve for years and decades to come.
It seems that for many people, the report’s findings about our post 9-11 caregivers have raised the most urgent concerns. I, too, was struck by some of the unique challenges faced by this new generation of caregivers. One of the most unfortunate facts was that our post 9-11 caregivers are being disqualified for caregiver support programs simply because they are younger. Many are limited to care recipients age 60 or older, which bars 80 percent of those who have served after September 11, 2001. These programs are also frequently limited to immediate family members, which prevents nearly one-third of post 9-11 caregivers from qualifying. If you add to these challenges that post 9-11 caregivers are caring for veterans with multiple injuries, and are more often suffering from psychological wounds, and a higher percentage of their caregivers are more likely to spend over 40 hours a week providing care, the situation is simply alarming.
Yet, while the calls to action for post 9-11 caregivers may have rung the loudest over the first few days following the study’s release, my hope and my mission is to support every person in our nation caring for a service member or veteran. By pursuing RAND’s recommendations we will lift up all of America’s military caregivers, each of whom is a hidden hero.
The beloved man I come home to every evening reminds me that the crisis facing military and veteran caregivers is not specific to any one generation. I think of the countless Saturdays Bob and I spend at the World War II Memorial greeting the Honor Flight groups of veterans seeing their memorial for the first time. I have a better appreciation for the son who traveled across the country with his aging father, just so he could see the long overdue memorial built in his generation’s honor. I notice the veteran walking by the Korean War Veterans Memorial with a weakened knee from an old combat injury and his wife linked to his arm, holding him steady. At the Vietnam Memorial, I see a man putting his hand on the wall as he sheds a tear, and his brother standing close by, always there to help him through the lingering emotional wounds. And I witness a new generation of veterans and service members, and their families, struggling in their transition home from the longest period of war in our nation’s history.
The RAND report shows us that we cannot support every caregiver with a one-size-fits all solution, and while some challenges deserve immediate attention, we seek change that will benefit caregivers of all eras. On April 1, 2014 we told Americans in every corner of the country that there are 5.5 million hidden heroes who deserve their nation’s full support. Let’s work together—united as a coalition—to accomplish that mission ahead of us.
The study was generously supported by the Wounded Warrior Project, the Lilly Endowment and the Cannon Foundation.