America’s 5.5 million military caregivers — called “hidden heroes” in a recent Rand Corporation study — are toiling and sacrificing under the radar. More than a million of them (spouses, parents and friends) care for the post-9/11 wounded warriors, who are often young and unmarried.
But what happens if you’ve survived serious injuries in Iraq or Afghanistan only to require a lifetime of medical and family care — perhaps due to a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) — and your primary caregiver is a boomer parent who may be starting to slow down?
Steven Schulz, a Marine Corps Corporal, sustained serious wounds and lost 90 percent of his frontal lobe following a roadside bombing near Fallujah in 2005, his second deployment in Iraq. “When he was injured I was 49 and thought I'd have lots of time,” says his mother Debbie, of Friendswood, Texas. “I’m 58 now and the ticking of the march of time gets a little louder each decade. That is the elephant in the room: What happens when I’m gone?”
(MORE: What Parents of Wounded Veterans Need)
She’s among a group of military caregivers, known as Elizabeth Dole Foundation fellows, who flew to Washington this month to lobby Congress for legislation to provide more support to these types of remarkable men and women. (That foundation’s mission is to care for military families.)
These caregivers also attended last Friday’s White House announcement on new government and private efforts to assist military caregivers in several ways, such as:
- Peer-to-peer support forums offered by the Department of Defense at every military installation around the world to serve wounded warriors and their caregivers
- A new website to provide free legal, financial and social resources
- An online guide helping caregivers with contingency planning and decision making
- Expanded training for caregivers through Easter Seals
- A pilot initiative by the Chamber of Commerce, called Hiring Our Heroes, to help caregivers find work
Compared to other Washington events I’ve attended as a journalist for NPR and ABC over the years, this gathering in the East Room looked a little different.
There was the bipartisan group of leaders from business and nonprofits who’d signed on.
(MORE: How to Mentor Women Vets Who’d Love Your Help)
But most striking was the star power on stage, all women, calling for the country to recognize and get behind the nation’s military caregivers: Two First Ladies (Michelle Obama and Rosalynn Carter); a Second Lady and military mom, Jill Biden and former Senator Elizabeth Dole, whose eyes were first opened to the challenge of military caregiving when her husband, former Senator Majority Leader Bob Dole, returned from World War II and spent nearly a year at Walter Reed with severe injuries.
Michelle Obama and Jill Biden launched the Joining Forces initiative three years ago this month to help bridge the gap between the civilian and military communities.
Mrs. Obama candidly described the enormous sacrifices made by military caregivers this way: “They report more strains on their relationships at work and at home than non-caregivers. Often their own health suffers, and they are at higher risk for depression. And there are financial consequences, too. Military caregivers wind up missing as many as three or four days of work a month — that’s if they have a job or can keep a job. So that means lost income as well.”
As she listened to the First Lady, Jenny Jeffery, 50, from Harrison Ohio, broke down in tears, all too aware of these effects.
Jeffery, also a Dole fellow, was forced to leave her job after her husband, Mark — a former contractor in Taji, Iraq — twice set the house on fire, first forgetting which buttons to push on the microwave and later, not remembering he had left something on the stove.
After surviving an electrocution during an accident in Iraq, Mark was left with no short-term memory. He suffers from TBI and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from his previous military service there.
Like Schulz, Jeffery worries about what will happen when she’s not around. “I’m 50 and Mark is 53. With his health issues, I will probably outlive him, at least that’s what I hope because I don’t know what to do for him if I’m not here. That’s a heavy burden to put on my daughter,” she says.
The physical and emotional toll on caregivers sometimes prompts what’s known as a “secondary PTSD.”
Jeffery says she’s been the recipient of black eyes and bruises from her husband, who is prone to flashbacks and nightmares. So she is grateful that Mark’s service dog, a Golden Retriever/Yellow Lab mix has developed a unique skill. “When Mark has nightmares, the dog will get on top of him in bed and start licking him. This will wake Mark and calm him down,” notes Jeffery.
Perhaps the most high-profile attention ever given to military caregivers came at the end of President Obama’s State of the Union address in January. That’s when he told the story of Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, the Army Ranger nearly killed by a massive roadside bomb during his 10th deployment to Afghanistan.
During the speech, Cory sat between the First Lady and his dad/caregiver, Craig, who helped his son stand to offer a “thumbs up” to an emotional, bipartisan standing ovation.
“Cory’s story is the model,” Mrs. Obama told the caregivers at the White House last week, mentioning family, friends, charities and employers who had joined with Craig and his wife, Annie, to help Cory on his long road back.
Annie Remsburg ultimately quit her Kelly Services job to help Cory with his physical therapy full-time, though she is now back with the flexibilty to leave to care for Cory when necessary. Craig has received time off from his employer, Telgian, a provider of safety and security services. Cory lives in a specially-equipped home near them.
Sadly, however, even models have setbacks. Not long after the First Lady’s remarks, Cory was in the ER in Arizona. “He was thinking he could move from point A to point B, fell and hit his head,” his father told me. “Someone with TBI can’t do that too many times.”
Craig Remsberg is 58; Annie is 63. “Probably every week, we talk about what will happen to Cory [when we’re not here], Craig says. “Cory yearns for independence, but for the foreseeable future, he’s going to need 24/7 care and will need help downstream.”
That story is repeated countless times in homes across America.
And at the White House event, with the military caregiving fellows looking on, the First Lady did something publicly that few in Washington ever do: she urged them to “hold our feet to the fire, give us feedback, criticize us, poke us.”
Debbie Schulz, says the plea will be respected. “You can bet we will do that. Caregivers will keep prodding and poking because we’ve learned through advocacy, you can really help your cause,” says Schulz. “I’m a squeaky wheel, I’m a real advocate. I’m not afraid to call Washington.”
Sandwich generation issues only add to the burdens of many boomer military caregivers. Aside from their wounded warrior children, aging parents and ill spouses demand their attention.
“I don’t think the civilian part of the country understands what military caregivers go through,” says Jenny Jeffery. “I hope we can bridge that gap.”