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We are a nation that has been at war for more than 12 years — conflicts that have left more than 60,000 people physically wounded, more than 400,000 people living with invisible wounds like combat stress and post-traumatic stress disorder, and more than 320,000 people with traumatic brain injuries. Many of the brave men and women affected by these wars sacrifice their health, lose their jobs and live in isolation. You may think these individuals are exclusively the brave men and women who fought for our country, but many never put on a uniform — they are the countless hidden heroes caring for wounded warriors on the home front.
While our country is quick to rally behind our military and provide veterans the support they need and deserve, their caregivers, whose sacrifice is just as great, are often overlooked. The Elizabeth Dole Foundation and Wounded Warrior Project teamed up to complete the first comprehensive, evidence-based research study ever undertaken on the needs of military and veteran caregivers. The April 1 release of the study’s findings confirmed that our nation has neglected the most important factor in the recovery and well-being of our wounded veterans — the spouses, parents, siblings and other loved ones who care for them at home.
According to the study, an estimated 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers provide caregiving services for wounded veterans — services that would total $15 billion annually if these dedicated individuals received a paycheck for their tremendous responsibilities. Instead, their efforts are reimbursed with more health problems than civilian caregivers, greater strains in family relationships and more problems in the workplace.
The cost is even greater for those who assist wounded warriors who served in the military after 9/11. These post-9/11 caregivers comprise 20 percent of the nation’s military and veteran caregiver population. The work they miss due to caregiving equates to $5.9 billion annually in lost productivity. Worsening their challenges, many existing caregiver programs have age and relationship qualifications that restrict post-9/11 caregivers from receiving support.
Since the Wounded Warrior Project’s founding just 10 years ago, the organization has provided these hidden heroes the support they deserve through programs and services such as caregiver retreats, writing workshops, and peer support training and activities. The WWP played an instrumental leadership role in the writing and ultimate passage of the groundbreaking Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010 — the first recognition by the Department of Veterans Affairs and federal government of the obligation to care for caregivers of injured veterans. And this year alone, the WWP committed $30 million dollars to support the long-term care needs of the most severely wounded veterans and their families, ensuring that for decades to come the most vulnerable veterans are able to live as rewarding and independent lives as possible — and that their caregivers are provided with opportunities for the mental, emotional and community assistance that will allow them to thrive as well.
As demonstrated in our RAND report, however, there is still much work to be done. Our nation must act to strengthen the support provided to our military and veteran caregivers. Our response must be holistic, with contributions from the American public, the government, nonprofit organizations, companies and unions to give back for the blessings of freedom and security these warriors and their caregivers make possible.
At an April 11 event at the White House, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, along with first lady Michelle Obama, Jill Biden, and former first lady Rosalynn Carter, issued a national call to action urging support for military and veteran caregivers. Dole also announced the launch of Hidden Heroes: The National Coalition for Military Caregivers, a nationwide collaboration of committed individuals and organizations that will provide a national response to this societal crisis, working together to raise awareness and provide support to America’s military caregivers.
The Elizabeth Dole Foundation and Wounded Warrior Project are calling on the nation to roll up its sleeves and join us. As we commemorate May as National Military Appreciation Month, let us identify the many ways we can also care for our military and veteran caregivers. We as a nation must join together to lift them up by strengthening our support. They must not endure this sacrifice alone. The time for action is now.
Elizabeth Dole is a former Republican senator from North Carolina and the founder of Caring for Military Families: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation. Steve Nardizzi is the chief executive officer of the Wounded Warrior Project.