- - Friday, April 11, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

“Meeting the other caregiver was like finding a twin with a secret language all our own,” said Andrea Sawyer, a fellow of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s Caring for Military Families project.

A mother of two, and wife and caregiver for her husband, who was medically retired from the Army in 2008, Ms. Sawyer captures the essence of connection that warrior caregivers seek. Knowing that they cannot quit, caregivers search for ways to share and “build each other up” she explains. Determined to do whatever it takes to save their loved one and their family, they are also deeply committed to ensure they never “leave another caregiver behind.”

This need for mutual support among caregivers is very practical, even lifesaving, when a wounded warrior must use extensive services of multiple agencies and providers. Beside hospital beds and waiting rooms, caregivers use trial and error to gain information about how best to navigate the maze of benefits and services.

Through sharing with others, they can come to view their warrior’s injuries and their own unexpected caregiver roles as “a detour on the journey of our lives, not as a derailment.” The support of other caregivers “is fuel that keeps the train on the tracks” for Ms. Sawyer, it remains difficult to find for far too many.

The challenges faced each day by caregivers who support those who served were highlighted in the recently released RAND Corp. report “Hidden Heroes, America’s Military Caregivers.” Commissioned by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, the report estimates there are currently 5.5 million military caregivers in the United States, 1.1 million of whom care for a veteran who served since Sept. 11, 2001.

While all caregivers experience decline in personal health outcomes, greater strains in family relationships and more workplace problems than non-caregivers, these statistics were even higher for post-September 11 caregivers. The report concluded that these caregivers tended to be younger, caring for a younger veteran, and be less connected to a support network.

To address this need for connection, a group of military and veterans service organizations is creating a direct opportunity for caregivers to receive peer support. This effort, called the Military and Veteran Caregiver Peer Support Network, is part of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation National Coalition for Military Caregivers, highlighted by first lady Michelle Obama at a White House Joining Forces event on Friday.

This network will tap the shared experience of our nation’s hidden heroes — those who care for those who have worn the uniform — in order to rally community-based engagement. It will provide caregivers with more formal access to person-to-person, online and community-based peer-support opportunities that supplement governmental services, and it will do so for free.

The network is modeled on the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), which has successfully used peers to deliver comprehensive services and support for 20 years to more than 50,000 adults and children whose loved ones died during military service.

The network is tapping into the expertise of a wide range of other nonprofit groups, such as the Wounded Warrior Project, which builds peer-to-peer support into their engagement opportunities to more than 50,000 alumni and caregivers. Initial partner organizations, including the Military Officers Association of America, the American Legion Auxiliary, the Association of the United States Army, the National Military Family Association, Blue Star Families, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and the National Guard Association of the United States, will help structure the network to make the benefits of peer support available to caregivers of all eras.

The network will also connect caregivers to public and private expertise and resources available through programs such as the Veterans Affairs Caregiver Helpline, the Warrior Care Program, Military OneSource, Vets4Warriors, the National Resource Directory, Veteran Caregivers, Easter Seals and the Caregiver Action Network. Over the next 12 months, it will recruit, train and support a cadre of volunteer peer caregivers who can offer 50,000 contacts to help overcome any isolation, which often cripples the heart.

The not-so-secret language of peer support that breaks through isolation is useful when speaking about the day-to-day challenges faced by many. For the caregivers of those among the less than 1 percent of Americans who have served in the military, it is however, an essential common language to know to translate the sometimes fleeting signs of hopefulness needed to pass through the times of trial. Indeed, the language of military and veteran caregiver peer support is a sacred code that cannot be contracted or contrived, but must be lived to be learned.

The Military and Veteran Caregiver Peer Support Network will help ensure caregivers from all eras have access to others who share their noble love and dedication, who speak their common language of battle, of caring and of healing against all odds. Without this voice, without each other, caregivers all too often remain hidden heroes, left behind.

Lynda C. Davis is executive vice president of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) and a former deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy.

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