When a key group of leaders and advocates gathered in a conference room outside Washington, D.C. earlier this year to discuss the extraordinary struggles faced by the loved ones caring for our nation's wounded, ill and injured veterans, the conversation grew heated as the group worked to rank the largest threats to the physical and mental well-being of military caregivers. A consensus seemed elusive until a caregiver — a woman who has served as the primary caregiver for her husband since he returned from Afghanistan with severe PTSD — spoke over the crowd: “None of this matters if we're dead,” she said, referring to her fellow caregivers. The room fell silent. Suddenly, the need for suicide prevention support was at the top of a list.
The forum was convened by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation in response to the findings in a nationwide, comprehensive study of military caregivers conducted a year ago by the RAND Corporation. The report revealed that 5.5 million loved ones care for wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans. These caregivers are the single-most important factor in the recovery and well-being of wounded warriors, according to the study, commissioned by the foundation with the support of Wounded Warrior Project.
The goal of the gathering was relatively straightforward: Devise strategies to implement the study's evidence-based recommendations to better support military caregivers. They are the ones who take on a lengthy list of responsibilities every day, ensuring that their veterans make their medical appointments, adhere to their prescribed treatments, avoid emotional triggers, maintain financial stability, and in some cases assist them with walking, using the bathroom, and getting in and out of bed or a chair.
Unfortunately, the toll taken by serving in such an all-consuming role results in physical and psychological stress, a decrease in workforce participation and lost productivity. The costs to the family and to society are high and must be mitigated.
Thanks to a growing list of more than 100 organizations that have pledged their commitment as members of the foundation's National Coalition for Military Caregivers in an effort to raise awareness and implement new programs of support, our nation is taking long overdue action to support both our wounded warriors, as well as the spouses, parents, sons, daughters, other loved ones and friends who care for them.
At February's forum, participants joined sessions that were organized around seven areas identified as critical to caregiver needs: local community support, education and training, interfaith action and ministry, financial and legal planning, mental and physical health, employment and workplace support, and respite care. RAND's research findings guided the discussions, current military caregivers provided the wisdom of their personal experience, and leaders known for their highly regarded work on these issues collaborated on prioritizing the most promising solutions.
In the course of the discussions, one factor was marked as critical to resolving every issue Americans' understanding and appreciation of the role played by military caregivers. The shrinking percentage of Americans who have served in uniform has resulted in a “military-civilian divide” in which most U.S. citizens are unfamiliar with their military, and the circumstances faced by military caregivers remains a complete mystery.
Educating ourselves about these heroes, the challenges they face, and the service they provide to our veterans and our country is a critically important first step toward filling the gaps in support for our veterans of war. To find out more, visit the Elizabeth Dole Foundation's website, where you can learn about the National Coalition for Military Caregivers and read RAND's study, “Hidden Heroes: America's Military Caregivers.” Later this month, scores of organizations will reconvene again in Washington to announce new caregiver support programs that address gaps in the current landscape of available resources. You can also simply reach out to a caregiver in your neighborhood, school, workplace or community, to help them with their individual challenges. Each of us has the ability to ease the load carried by our military caregivers.
Sen. Elizabeth Dole is president and chief executive officer of Elizabeth Dole Foundation. Michael Rich is president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on Washington Times on May 6, 2015. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.