Hidden Heroes: The nation’s most valuable asset for veteran and servicemember care
© Keren Carrion

Military caregivers are the most valuable asset our nation has for providing wounded, ill or injured veterans the care they need and deserve. Yet, they are under considerable strain. Left unsupported, we could see a dramatic decline in the health of our veteran population and those caring for them.

Over the last five years, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation has measured the toll taken on the loved ones caring for our wounded, ill and injured veterans at home. The findings have been stunning. Military and veteran caregiving is very different, and in many ways much harder, than the family caregiving most of us will take on at some point in our lives. And we have discovered that the consequences of military and veteran caregiving are likely to grow and become more complex in the coming years and decades.

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To understand the weight of the current responsibilities on America’s military caregivers, our Foundation commissioned the RAND Corporation to undertake the first comprehensive, nationwide study of this population. The study provided the nation with critical, evidence-based findings that allow us to total the cost of caregiving – taking into account the physical, mental and financial tolls.

My preference is to measure the cost of military caregiving by focusing on the benefit these hidden heroes provide our service members and veterans. Experts have determined that the most critical factor in the recovery or improvement of a wounded warrior, is a well-supported caregiver. RAND calculated that if our nation were to pay these caregivers for the services they provide our veterans, the cost would total nearly $14 billion every year.

Additionally, both our research and endless personal accounts from caregivers and veterans have revealed that those who suffer from post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries overwhelming report they trust only their loved one with their care. In these many cases, military caregivers are irreplaceable. They are our most valuable resource in anticipating and preventing suicide among our veteran population, and they’re also increasingly on the front lines in curbing prescription drug abuse, as they manage their veteran’s medicines.

Unfortunately, our nation can also measure the cost of caregiving by accounting for the negative impact it has on the loved ones filling the role. Military caregivers report increased instances of isolation, depression, and heart and immune system problems. RAND informs us that military caregivers have a much higher rate of negative health consequences, both mental and physical, than civilian caregivers.

Mental health professionals who understand the unique situation of military caregivers are few and far between. America’s hidden heroes also become so consumed with managing the household, tracking medications and doctor’s appointments, preventing emotional triggers, and working and caring for the kids, that they do not seek treatment for themselves. One of the most somber speeches I have ever given recounted the disturbing frequency of suicidal thoughts among caregivers.

The frequency of these alarming consequences of caregiving is higher – sometimes far higher – among military caregivers than their civilian counterparts. The wounds they encounter are often more severe than what are commonly seen in the civilian world. Many veterans live with a complex combination of physical and emotional wounds, which complicates their ability to care for themselves, even for a matter of hours. The majority of post 9/11 military caregivers are very young and may be providing their services for decades to come. Pre 9/11 caregivers are dealing with war-related wounds compounded by the effects of aging - the advent of ALS, some cancers, chronic pain and mobility issues.

Our Foundation is actively working with Congress to address the most pressing needs of caregivers. Sens. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayA bipartisan bridge opens between the House and Senate Overnight Health Care: ObamaCare sign-ups surge in early days Collins, Manchin to serve as No Labels co-chairs MORE (D-Wash.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBipartisan group of lawmakers aim to reform US sugar program A bipartisan bridge opens between the House and Senate Gaming the odds of any GOP tax bill getting signed into law MORE (R-Maine), and Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) introduced the Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act, which directly responds to the concerns outlined in our research to date. Hundreds of our partners in the private, nonprofit and faith communities have been building and refining resources and programs for military caregivers. Now it is the time for Congress to do its part by passing this bill.

Furthermore, we have to ready our hidden heroes for what lies ahead. It is frightening how little prepared we are to address the long-term needs of our caregivers. Critically important research is required on how the needs of care recipients change over time and the impact of caregiving on the caregiver and children in the family. Our Foundation once again commissioned RAND to develop a research blueprint, released in June, providing vital information supporting military caregivers five, ten, twenty years out. We must immediately embrace and pursue the priorities outlined in this blueprint.

America cannot fulfill its sacred vow to serve those who have borne the battle, without giving equal steadfast support to their hidden heroes. Let’s make sure our military and veteran caregivers do not carry this tremendous responsibility alone. 

Dole is a former Senator and has served as the Secretary of Transportation, Secretary of Labor and president of the American Red Cross. In 2012, she founded the Elizabeth Dole Foundation to support military caregivers.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.