Published: May 23, 2014
Stars and Stripes
Elizabeth Dole — former U.S. senator and presidential cabinet member twice over — and her husband, Robert Dole — longtime veteran of both houses of Congress and two presidential tickets — could be called a Republican power couple.
However, their latest efforts bridge the gap between red and blue politics with a red, white and blue cause. The National Coalition for Military Caregivers was launched this year by Caring for Military Families: Elizabeth Dole Foundation.
“Everyone is so willing to help,” said Elizabeth Dole. “We are very much a bipartisan organization, and it’s a joy to work with people who are friends on both sides of the aisle, and the White House.”
Working alongside first lady Michelle Obama’s Joining Forces initiative, Dole’s coalition has enlisted labor and business leaders, nonprofits and faith groups to engineer a nationwide network of support for caregivers of wounded warriors.
Dole’s inspiration for what she calls her “mission” is as personal as it is patriotic. Her husband was severely wounded in WWII, suffering injuries that have affected him throughout his life. A long stay in 2010 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., introduced the Doles to many post-9/11 veterans.
“Bob was hospitalized for almost 11 months at Walter Reed, so I spent a great deal of time there,” Elizabeth Dole said. “I got to know the wounded warriors and some of their caregivers, who often were young spouses, or sometimes mothers and fathers.”
She said getting to know other patients and their families opened her eyes to the obstacles facing those caregivers, and the Elizabeth Dole foundation arose from a desire to help them overcome.
“I learned so much about what was going on in their lives,” she said. “They had no idea that they were going to become caregivers — not just for a short period of time but for decades.
“I wanted to raise awareness and also to look for ways to support these wonderful people that I got to know very well.”
Through her foundation, Dole commissioned a Rand Corporation study of the caregiver population in the U.S. Among other findings, the two-year study discovered that of 5.5 million caregivers in the U.S., 1.1 million are caring for veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. This group is younger than the rest of the caregiver population and less likely to have a support network, according to the study.
“Isolation was certainly one strong part of the Rand findings,” Dole said. “Also the legal and financial challenges … Many (military caregivers) have no health care, so their own health often has been impacted.”
Dole said she was surprised the research showed a majority of these caregivers were also in the workforce.
“They have to be because of the expenses of caregiving, and some are now their family’s breadwinners,” she said. “And they’re raising children, many of them. How do they do it? It’s just incredible.”
At Walter Reed she saw first-hand the challenges caregivers faced while their service members were inpatients.
“Obviously, once they’re home the challenges become tremendous. My heart was just being pulled on this. More and more I had a sense of mission … to raise awareness about these hidden heroes.”
After the study, the launch of the National Coalition of Military Caregivers was the next logical step. Dole said she envisions a network of support for wounded warriors and caregivers that will include efforts from government, private companies, nonprofit organizations, labor organizations and the faith community.
Although her initiative is focused on the caregivers of wounded warriors, Dole said families with special-needs children could also benefit from the coalition.
“Many of the initiatives are meant to reduce stress and strain for the entire family and will provide support that, I think, will be helpful for parents of special-needs children, like respite care, like financial planning.”
The Elizabeth Dole Fellows Program is another outreach. Fifty caregivers of wounded warriors — one from each state — represent fellow caregivers in their states and advise the foundation.
The Dole foundation’s work has natural connections to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Dole expressed concern over the recent news about mismanagement at VA hospitals around the country.
She called VA Secretary Eric Shinseki “an honorable man with a great background in the military,” but said he leads an agency with longtime systemic issues that must be addressed.
“When you think about people who’ve been placed in harm’s way and who are defending our freedom and our security, there’s a special responsibility that we have to them,” she said. “So it’s very important to get these matters resolved, and the spotlight is on it now.”
Dole said any efforts to support military caregivers require a “holistic” approach.
“If we’re going to have a really effective outcome, we need a national response to this societal crisis.”