Military and veteran caregivers have been caring for their wounded, ill and injured loved ones as long as there has been war in America, yet our nation largely overlooks the unique challenges facing this underserved community.
According to a 2014 RAND Corp. study commissioned by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, 5.5 million men and women serve as military caregivers. Experts estimate that they provide nearly $14 billion in uncompensated care annually. The time commitment and emotional stress has resulted in familial and financial strain and negative health consequences.
Despite these common trends, every caregiver story is different. My story began when my husband came back from his 11th deployment with the Air Force. Being a flight medic, performing aero evacuations and combat search and rescue, Dave saw and treated the indescribable pain and suffering of fellow warriors, children and Afghanis.
These things haunted him, causing nightmares, mood swings and suicidal thoughts. He was medically retired in 2012 when he was only 43 years old. He was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury that, in conjunction with post-traumatic stress disorder, left him unable to work. I’ve been a nurse for 20 years but left my job to care for him and our family. In the middle of caring for everyone else, I had not been taking care of myself. I became depressed — so depressed that I began having suicidal thoughts. I had to leave my job to save myself.
Our story mirrors what many caregivers and warriors go through. Dave goes to therapy several times a week and started taking classes this year with the help of the Wounded Warrior Project and the Veterans Administration. I have found a wonderful job that works with my schedule and gives me a sense of fulfillment.
For the past year, I’ve represented South Carolina as a fellow for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, and have had an opportunity to help inspire and witness a broad coalition of leaders and organizations commit to finding ways to make a difference in the lives of military and veteran caregivers. Yet, we are only just beginning.
Please remember the military and veteran caregivers in our community and consider ways you can help, whether by creating flexible work schedules for caregivers in your company, starting a respite care program at your church or offering pro bono financial or legal counseling. We serve our wounded warriors proudly, and we welcome your support.