March is Military Caregivers Month: Understanding their long-term journey

March is Military Caregivers Month: Understanding their long-term journey
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“Ma’am, your husband has been severely injured. He lost both his legs above the knee. We are trying to save his arm but cannot guarantee if it will work. He is in a medically induced coma. Upon wakening, we can start exploring what effects the blast had on his brain. We are arranging his flight back to the United States and he will be sent directly to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Please make your own arrangements to meet him there.” 

Since the 9/11 terror attacks, more than 32,000 Americans have received this type of phone call, informing them of their service member’s injuries sustained during combat. (Unfortunately, this statistic does not include injuries sustained in non-combat training.) This life-altering phone call is only the beginning of a caregiver’s journey, filled with overwhelming emotional and financial burdens.

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March is U.S. Military Caregivers Month, celebrating and honoring the immeasurable dedication and sacrifice required of these “hidden heroes.” The United States is in the longest period of war in its history, with service members returning home wounded, injured or ill, and often in need of full-time caregivers. Many military caregivers must relocate to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) in Bethesda, Md., arranging for childcare, emergency leave from jobs, as well as lodging and transportation, in order to arrive and remain by their loved ones’ sides.

The initial months at Walter Reed are a blur: operations, postoperative rehabilitation, prescriptions, agonizing discussions with medical professionals stating the best- and worst-case scenarios for their loved ones. Amidst this chaos, caregivers learn to adapt to the new normal of administering medication, assisting in routine physical therapy, managing appointments at Veteran Affairs (VA) medical centers, bathing and feeding their loved ones. For military caregivers, the choice to relocate and be by their loved ones’ sides can be one of the easiest, amid all of the others; however, the choice can come at a significant emotional and financial cost.

While U.S. military benefits cover the costs associated with the service member’s operative and postoperative treatment, these benefits exclude costs — such as lodging and transportation — incurred by caregivers. With military caregivers sacrificing educational opportunities, jobs and incomes, financial burdens can be enormous. For the 1.1 million military caregivers serving their post 9/11 loved ones, ages 30 and younger, these financial burdens can have long-term, negative impacts on their families’ financial futures and security.

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As the third most expensive rental market and fourth most expensive hotel market in the Washington area, the cost of living in Bethesda often is an immediate obstacle to service members and their families. As a result, military caregivers not only incur debt but also acute and chronic conditions, as well as stress and strain on personal and professional relationships. The care and love of a military caregiver is invaluable and unending, but its emotional and financial cost is profound. A trip to Bethesda by a caregiver could easily hit $1,000 per visit — and, in most cases, injured service members are in for multiple surgeries and follow-up visits, meaning caregivers can quickly incur personal bills reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars.

It is imperative for our nation to support military caregivers, as these individuals serve as their family’s keystone, the apex of an arch enabling the structure to bear its weight. Without a supportive structure in place, our nation’s heroes could not prevail in the operative and postoperative rehabilitation process and successfully transition into civilian life.

Thankfully, a number of private groups have been created or expanded since 9/11 to offer such support. I serve on the board of one — Yellow Ribbon Fund, a 501(c)3 non-profit founded in 2005 that offers supplemental assistance to wounded, ill and injured service members and their caregivers, to bridge the gap between earned and needed benefits and to enable families to remain together during the critical healing and recovery process. Like many of these charitable organizations, Yellow Ribbon Fund helps to alleviate emotional and financial burdens placed upon families. It provides practical, quality-of-life services often unavailable to families; it maintains eight apartments, provides 5,200 nights of free hotel rooms and 5,400 days of car rentals to service members and their families receiving treatment at Walter Reed; it offers transitional services and training to caregivers — including health and wellness education and opportunities, family retreats, and peer-to-peer support.

While the support offered by these and other programs is as important as it is impressive, it is nothing compared to the sacrifice our service members have made — or to the support they and their families need and deserve.

Whether faced with extended or lifelong treatment at Walter Reed, or returning home to continued treatment at a local VA medical center, America’s service members and their families should be assured that these programs will provide a pipeline of sanctuary and support to both our nation’s heroes and their “hidden hero” families.

Sean M. Spicer previously served as White House press secretary and is on the board of directors of Yellow Ribbon Fund. He can be contacted at www.seanpicer.com.