Veterans caregivers are unsung heroes who need equal benefits
© Getty Images

As an Army and Coast Guard veteran, I understand that the men and women who put on the uniform to defend this great country — especially those who go to war — are forever changed. Many paid and continue to pay a tremendous price. But while those of us who served are often recognized for our sacrifices, there are countless wives, husbands and children of the wounded and injured who are not. Many of them are the caregivers of disabled veterans, like my wife, Yvonne, upon whom we rely. They are unsung American heroes.

While serving as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer 20 years ago, I contracted a rare, nearly fatal bacterial infection, requiring all four of my limbs to be amputated in order to save my life. Today, I literally cannot take my first step each day without Yvonne helping to attach my prosthetic limbs. She has spent years bathing me, shaving me, feeding me and doing a hundred other things that allowed me to restart my life, take on a new career and build a family together. I can say, with all my heart, she is an American hero — just like thousands of other caregivers of veterans who help in the aftermath of devastating injury during military service.

ADVERTISEMENT
But as a newly released report and survey by Disabled American Veterans (DAV) shows, most caregivers do not get the recognition they deserve or the support they need. According to the DAV survey, the average caregiver has been serving in that role for 10 years, providing more than 45 hours of care per week. In addition, 84 percent provide care seven days a week and one in every six spends 12 or more hours every day. Yet less than 5 percent receive any direct financial support from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and only about 3 percent receive respite care or home health aide support.

 

As a result, the vast majority of survey respondents say being a caregiver has negatively impacted their financial security, career, friendships, family life, and mental and physical health. And 75 percent say that without the support provided by the caregiver, the veteran would need to be placed into a nursing home or assisted living facility immediately or in the near future.

Because then-existing federal policies and programs failed to adequately recognize the great and many sacrifices family caregivers make to support our nation’s heroes, Congress required VA to establish the first and only comprehensive program integrating supports and services tailored to assist family caregivers. Unfortunately, VA’s comprehensive caregiver assistance program is both inadequate and unfair. Caregivers of veterans who were severely injured after 9/11 are eligible to receive VA’s comprehensive benefits and supports, but caregivers of veterans injured before 9/11 are not.

This month, DAV kicked off a multi-pronged outreach initiative with an event on Capitol Hill. The goal is to ensure equal benefits for all caregivers of veterans from all eras. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also smart policy. The average cost per year in the VA comprehensive caregiver program is $36,770, whereas it costs taxpayers $332,756 annually per veteran to receive care in a VA nursing home.

Although bipartisan legislation to extend the program to caregivers of veterans of all eras has been introduced in both the House and Senate, Congress has yet to take action to correct this inequity. That must change. When it comes to the benefits earned by the men and women who served, we should never choose one generation of veterans over the others.

When I woke up after a month in a coma and learned I had no arms and legs, all I felt was despair. I could not have imagined the life that lay ahead of me. But today, in addition to the pride and joy I get from my family and career, I can ski and play golf, compete in cycling races and find great solace as a wood carver. I shudder to think what my life would have been without Yvonne by my side throughout this incredible journey.

It is unsung heroes like Yvonne, who, at great personal cost, make a fulfilling life possible for so many disabled veterans who served our nation, and have earned the right to be treated fairly. It’s time for Congress to live up to this basic American value.

David W. Riley, a veteran of the U.S. Army and U.S. Coast Guard, is national commander of Disabled American Veterans, a nonprofit organization that provides support and advocacy for veterans and their families.


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