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Thursday, May 21, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There are 5.5 million Americans who have stepped up to become caregivers for wounded warriors, saving our nation $13.6 billion yearly in health care costs. These hidden heroes are simultaneously losing $5.9 billion in their own productivity by putting their careers, education and life as they knew it on hold when their loved one was injured or suffered from a medical illness due to serving in the military.

Some care for a service member who was injured in a training accident, others care for someone who was injured by an IED or lost a limb many years ago in Vietnam. These 5.5 million spouses, siblings, parents and friends are our nation’s unsung heroes. It is time that we as a nation step up to support our military caregivers — so that they in turn can successfully support our nation’s wounded warriors.


I became a military caregiver before I even knew what my “role” was called. When my husband first returned home from a deployment to Iraq, I noticed he would stop breathing for long periods during his sleep. Other medical symptoms emerged, which I now know are related to his post-traumatic stress (PTS) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). I originally thought that these were normal symptoms for someone who just came home from war.

Since moving back home, my husband began to receive treatment for his TBI, PTS, seizures and other physical ailments. I have had to put off furthering my education, reconfigure my professional goals and organize our family’s schedule and structure so that it is conducive to my husband’s recovery, as well as the general well-being for our family. My life’s motto has become: “God doesn’t give you only what you can handle, you’re given the tools to handle any situation that you’re in.”

Last year, I became the Massachusetts Caregiver Fellow for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and am now also employed by the foundation as their Caregiver Community Program coordinator. The foundation commissioned the RAND Corp. to do the first comprehensive empirical nationwide study of military caregivers in a report called “Hidden Heroes: Military Caregiving in the United States.” The findings in this report are most recently being used to support federal legislation titled “The Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act,” which will be the focus of the next blog.

The RAND report, whose statistics are cited in the piece, helped to identify seven main areas in which military caregivers are in need of support:

Financial and Legal Issues

Education and Training

Community Support at Home

Interfaith Action and Ministry

Mental and Physical Health

Respite Care

Employment

Workplace Support

Why support military caregivers? Because, quite frankly, we need your help. More than 80 percent who have served since 9/11 are under the age of 60, which makes them ineligible for many already-established programs such as the National Caregiver Family Support Program. Twenty percent of pre-9/11 military caregivers and 40 percent of post-9/11 caregivers are without health care coverage. Like myself, many of the post-9/11 caregivers are younger, without the long-term established support of a more traditionally viewed role of a caregiver, such as a child caring for their aging parent. I was 25 when my husband was hospitalized; a friend of mine was 23 when her husband, injured in Iraq, was admitted to Walter Reed.

Our older, pre-9/11 caregivers are struggling as well. For example, by not having access to the VA Caregiver Program, they are left without basic support for their roles as military caregivers. It is imperative that this program be expanded to include them as well.

• Emery A. Popoloski, a mom, resides in the Boston area with her husband, Charles, who served in Iraq. She is the Massachusetts Caregiver Fellow and the Caregiver Community Program coordinator for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. She has started a blog at The Washington Times for military caregivers.


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