They are quiet and often unseen. They are strong and resourceful, caring and compassionate. They will roar when needed to obtain the help they need. They are the Caregivers of our nation’s veterans.
Caregivers are the heartbeat of the military family and the backbone of the veteran medical care system. According to the most recent RAND study, there are 5.5 million military Caregivers in 2014, with 20% caring for veterans of our most recent conflicts. But, few know they exist.
For a brief moment, imagine a “National Take Your Vet to VA Today” event. This would be a day where the 1700 VA medical centers, vet clinics, or sites of care would attend to the hourly needs of the veteran to provide the caregiver a single day of respite. It’s nearly unimaginable given the sheer numbers, isn’t it? But it would be an excellent visual to show the vital importance and contribution of our veteran Caregivers.
Veteran Caregivers are intrepid; going where others fear to tread in their quest for answers. They soak up information and education about Invisible Injuries like PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and myriad physical and more visible conditions. They learn to navigate a labyrinthine medical system, all the while reminding medical staff they are an integral part of the care team. It has been a slow road to understanding in a system that previously focused solely on the veteran, and large bureaucracies are seldom swift change agents.
Caregivers carry a heavy load, and some examples are shocking. One OIF veteran, raped by another soldier tried to hang himself; he was saved by his caregiver spouse grabbing a chair and raising him on her shoulders to elevate him until EMS arrived. Another soldier was shot by one of his squad mates in Iraq (the only survivor of four in the room) in Iraq; his caregiver mother could not discuss her situation with anyone due to the investigation. One caregiver sibling had to explain to the rest of the family that her brother preferred addiction to facing his combat PTSD. The complexity of caregiving is great, with role changes, steep learning curves, and isolation.
In providing Caregiver Workshops at military installations this year, several common themes emerge. Though present in most communities and at every military base/post, Caregivers feel invisible and isolated, even from each other. They wish they knew more about how to live with someone with combat injuries, and how to best understand how to help their spouse/adult child/sibling/friend. They are grateful for the Internet, but nothing can take the place of a hug from a peer; someone who has walked in their shoes. Finally, they realize that helping others also helps them to grieve for what might have been, restores their strength, and empowers them to share what they’ve learned. Peer support is critical.
We are a generous nation, and we move to fulfill unmet needs. Most people know a veteran, and some know many. From this day forward, reach out to help a Caregiver of a veteran of any era. Our WWII vets have aging and end of life needs, our Vietnam veterans have often shunned formal help until absolutely necessary, and tamped down combat experiences and their aftermath. Those in Desert Storm and the Gulf wars, Kosovo, Grenada, Kuwait, and so many other places are smaller in number, but not in contribution. And, for our OIF/OEF/OND veterans, successfully returning home is aided when the community recognizes and supports the entire family.
Proactively offer assistance to a caregiver who may not have the energy to ask, know the power of a smile of understanding, and the ease provided by listening without judgment. Caregivers will not be alone if we practice outreach, increase awareness, and integrate them with their families more smoothly into the community. It is a matter of respect, compassion, and grace.
Caregivers, know that you matter and that America is learning to express their support and understanding more each day!
Linda Kreter & the VeteranCaregiver Team