May is Month of the Military Caregiver: It’s Time to Honor our Hidden Heroes with Substantive Support and Meaningful Legislation
By Senator Elizabeth Dole
One of our greatest strengths as Americans is our ability to unite around a worthy cause. For decades now, we have come together time and time again to support the men and women who protect our freedom and security. Despite the issues that divide us, our appreciation for those who serve brings us together. But for too long, support for our military has excluded a population that serves just as courageously, but far more quietly. There are 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers nationwide who provide care to our wounded warriors at home. These selfless men and women shoulder the incredible responsibility of caring for their loved ones, but they often do so in total isolation.
That is why the bipartisan Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act (S. 591 and H.R. 1472), recently reintroduced in both the Senate and the House, is so critical. This bill strengthens and expands vital programs that support caregivers nationwide, and ensures that caregivers are recognized for their service in tangible ways.
I applaud Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), and Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) for reintroducing this important bill, and I want to thank the co-sponsors in both chambers of Congress for backing it. I urge legislators in both houses to provide our military and veteran caregivers the help they desperately need by supporting the Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act.
When my husband Bob, was admitted to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for an extended period, I witnessed firsthand the tremendous challenges facing the spouses, mothers, dads, siblings, and loved ones caring for our wounded warriors. I discovered that these military caregivers make enormous sacrifices to provide care but are rarely acknowledged or given support in their work. They are truly our nation’s “Hidden Heroes.” I established the Elizabeth Dole Foundation to shine a light on this population and find solutions to the myriad challenges they face.
We began our work by trying to understand the scope of the problem. In 2012, the Foundation commissioned the RAND Corporation to conduct the first comprehensive, evidence-based national study of military and veteran caregivers. This two-year study, Hidden Heroes: America’s Military Caregivers, examined the needs of caregivers, identified gaps in services to address those needs, and made recommendations for filling those gaps. The study found that the best chance for the wounded to improve or fully recover is a strong, well-supported caregiver. But it also revealed a national caregiver crisis – isolation, increased stress, physical ailments, unemployment, debt, legal issues, and more are disturbingly common for the women and men who transform their lives to care for their loved one. Caregivers are critical to the health and wellbeing of our nation’s wounded warriors. But they too must be supported.
The Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act is an essential part of our response to the military caregiver crisis. This legislation would expand the VA Caregiver Program to include pre-9/11 caregivers. The bill would also make the program more inclusive of mental health injuries and give veterans the opportunity to transfer GI Bill benefits to a dependent, to help unemployed or underemployed spouses of injured veterans prepare to become the primary income source for the family. Additionally, the bill would provide assistance with childcare, financial advice and legal counseling, all identified in the RAND study as crucial unmet needs.
Since launching the Foundation, I have had the opportunity to speak with scores of wounded, ill, and injured service members and veterans. When I ask them how Americans can best honor their service, they are almost unanimous in their response: help my caregiver. It is time for us to provide that same passionate support we give to our servicemembers and veterans to their caregivers. I urge you to contact your senators and representatives today to encourage them to support this critical piece of legislation.