Military Caregivers are Unsung Heroes

Families face stunning demands when veterans are injured

by Kristen Fischer | Updated 01 Jun 2016 at 7:44 PM

Memorial Day honors military members that have passed away, Veterans Day pays homage to those who have served, and Armed Forces Day recognizes members of the military who currently serve.

Military caregivers experience worse health outcomes, greater strains in family relationships, and more workplace problems.

We reflect on our fellow Americans on those holidays — but seldom do we remember those who care for them.

There are about 5.5 million military caregivers in the U.S., and 1.1 million of them care for veterans injured since Sept. 11, 2001. For many, caregiving is a full-time job — in fact, 17 percent of caregivers spend more than 40 hours a week caring for a veteran, a 2014 RAND Corp. study reports.

The study found most resources are focused on the injured veteran but there is less of a support network for caregivers and their families — many of whom are young families. And caregiving for a veteran is different from caregiving for a civilian.

The RAND report found military caregivers consistently experience worse health outcomes, greater strains in family relationships, and more workplace problems than non-military caregivers. Post-9/11 military caregivers fare the worst.

Support for Caregivers
Currently, the Department of Veterans Affairs has a program that compensates approved caregivers of veterans in the post-9/11 era.

A new initiative — the Veterans First package — was recently released. It would phase in caregiving support with reference to veterans injured in pre-9/11 conflicts. The number of pre-9/11-era caregivers that could be eligible for benefits if the program is expanded could be as high as 80,000, the VA reported last year.

Estimates say the program would cost $3.1 billion over its first five years. It would give in-home full-time caregivers of veterans cash stipends, health insurance, paid respite, and training. The proposal has many hurdles to clear before it becomes law, but the measure is being debated right now in the Senate as part of a package of other veteran reform measures.

Some 400 new caregivers of post-9/11 veterans qualify each month for benefits. In 2015, program costs were $453 million, and that is expected to go up to $650 million this year and $725 million in 2017, an article in Stars and Stripes reports.

Resources for Caregivers
  • MilVetCaregiverNetwork.org
  • taps.org
  • militaryonesource.mil
  • realwarriors.net
  • militaryfamily.org

Dr. Lynda C. Davis, executive vice president of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and executive director of the Military and Veteran Caregiver Network, said her groups aim to bridge the gap for military caregivers. She said many are isolated and experience financial strain, health issues, and mental health problems.

“These stem in part from isolation, lack of respite care, and associated depression,” Davis said.

Even with the existence of the Department of Defense and VA health care and benefits, military caregivers often rely on others for assistance, Davis said. At least 65 percent look for services through the thousands of local and state agencies and the thousands of nonprofit and community-based organizations.

The Military and Veteran Caregiver Network also offers peer support groups and a library of resources for military caregivers.

A new study on military caregiver stress is also underway, led by Sandraluz Lara-Cinisomo, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Lara-Cinisomo hopes the research will uncover better ways to help these families manage their unique challenges.

Because they are typically injured so young, these veterans will require decades of caregiving.

“Caregivers of veterans often have to fill the care gaps with minimal training, while they juggle the demands of everyday life,” Lara-Cinisomo told LifeZette. “Ultimately this leads to a high level of stress, with few evidence-based treatment options.”

Her study is being conducted through the Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Currently, she is recruiting military caregivers.

Weight of Honor
A new documentary, “The Weight of Honor,” is chronicling life for military caregivers. Most people featured in the film are post-9/11 military caregivers — and they are often younger families that are married. A spouse was deployed, injured, and returned home — and the couple or family now faces the challenges of caregiving.

These veterans are living with incredible hardships due to health care advances that enable medics to save the lives of troops, said Stephanie Seldin Howard, director and producer. In Vietnam or Korea, they would have bled out in the field. Now, their lives are often spared, but the force of explosives in modern-day conflicts can cause injuries that severely impair veterans’ lives and warrant full-time caregivers.

Because they are typically injured so young, they will require decades of caregiving. Their children, too, become caregivers. The entire family unit is impacted, Seldin Howard said.

Other Americans can help by assisting with housework, mentoring children, holding fundraisers, and offering transportation. She said many of them want other Americans to know they exist, and that they can use assistance with everyday tasks.

Seldin Howard is raising money via her website, theweightofhonormovie.com, in order to release her film, which still has to go through the editing process.

"We see the injuries, we hear about the vets," she said. "But who's taking care of them [the caregivers]?"

"The issues that these families have are remarkable," she added. "They are inspiring. They're heroes, too."

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