(note: while respectful of generous support for post 9/11 veterans and their families, veterans of other conflicts note the very careful exclusion of them from this vital program)
By Patricia Kime, Air Force Times Staff writer
The White House continued its focus on veterans and military families by announcing new programs Friday to expand support and services available to those who care for injured or ill troops.
In a Joining Forces event at the White House that brought together military family members, First Lady Michelle Obama, former First Lady Rosalyn Carter, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole and Jill Biden, wife of vice president Joe Biden, Obama announced several programs to support caregivers, from training, financial and legal guidance to employment opportunities.
The expanded opportunities follow the release last week of a Rand Corp. study that found many of the one million caregivers of the nation’s post-9/11 veterans face challenges ranging from isolation and financial strain to poor health and inadequate training.
The study said these caregivers, who help veterans and medically retired troops with dressing in the morning, making doctors appointments, managing households, serving as sole providers and much more, save taxpayers more than $3 billion a year by offsetting the cost of home health care and medical aides.
“The burden these men and women bear for our country is real and they shouldn’t have to shoulder it on their own ... we are here to show that we have their backs,” Obama said.
Among the new initiatives that will be rolled out in the next year is a Defense Department program to support caregiver peer groups at every military installation with wounded personnel.
Announcing the new Pentagon effort, Obama described the impact of a meeting she had several years ago with caregivers at Fort Belvoir, Va.
“For one of the women there, it was the first time she had ever spoken to another caregiver. But immediately, we could all see how powerful it was for these women to be talking to these peers,” Obama said.
Another initiative will address the financial and legal concerns of families of injured or ill personnel. Sponsored by the Military Officers Association of America, USAA, the American Bar Association, Google and others, the program will provide Internet-based aid for contingency planning and decision making as well as online support.
The programs also include a peer support network offering one-on-one mentoring and support groups for caregivers and a U.S. Chamber of Commerce effort to broaden its job fair program for veterans to include a pilot program for caregivers.
Dole, who founded the Elizabeth Dole Foundation to support military and veterans caregivers, said she is buoyed by the collaborative nature of the effort to help an often overlooked population.
“I draw strength ever single day from the stories of love and devotion demonstrated by America’s military caregivers. May their commitment to their loved ones inspire us to walk with them,” Dole said.
Military caregivers also were the focus this week of proposed legislation that would increase federal support for them.
The Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act, introduced Thursday by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., would expand the Veterans Affairs Department’s caregiver program by removing certain restrictions on who is considered a caregiver and increasing support for those caring for people with mental health issues.
The bill also would make tax-free the Defense Department benefit known as Special Compensation for Assistance with Activities of Daily Living and would expand eligibility for that program by increasing support of those caring for individuals with mental health conditions and/or traumatic brain injury.
The bill also would remove the time restrictions for veterans eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill to transfer their benefits to family members.
During a week of receptions, dinners, lunches and tours of Washington, D.C., 50 caregivers who are designated caregiver fellows for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation said they had been rendered nearly speechless by the outpouring of support.
Natalie Tarte, of Dardanelle, Ark., has been helping her husband, retired Army Sgt. Chris Tarte, since 2011 as he recovers from amputation, limb salvage, post-traumatic stress disorder and other health concerns.
“I haven’t been doing this as long as some other women but there is a real feeling of being alone and isolation and wondering if help is coming for us. To hear this from [Mrs. Obama] is energizing ... very inspiring,” Tarte said.
In return, Obama said the caregivers she has met actually have been the inspiring ones.
“They are incredibly poised and polished ... so smart and so incredibly articulate ... any company would want to hire them. And then I heard their stories and I was blown away. They were dealing with daily challenges that would knock most people to their knees,” Obama said.