- - Thursday, May 21, 2015

It’s hard to believe it was just over a year ago that we released an eye-opening report from the RAND Corporation identifying the needs and gaps in support facing the “hidden heroes” of America’s wars: the spouses, family members and friends who have dedicated their lives to caring for our wounded, ill and injured warriors. These brave women and men — just like the heroes they are caring for — are making a commitment of service that will stretch for decades. And yet our nation overlooked their critical role for far too long, leaving them to care for our wounded without the support they need or deserve.

I am proud to say, one year later, America is beginning to close those gaps. While we still have a very long road ahead of us, the accomplishments we have made in support of our caregivers have been remarkable. Our response has been holistic in the issues it has addressed and the organizations that have offered support, and coordinated to establish common priorities, build partnerships and collaborate on the way ahead. We knew a societal issue of this significance would never be solved with a single donation, a newly established program or the swift stroke of a pen. Rather, it would be born from the cooperation of people from all sectors willing to break down barriers and come together to pursue a cause greater than themselves.

This week, my foundation gathered with caregivers, private and public experts, government officials, nonprofits, leaders of faith and philanthropists at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., to take stock of the progress already made and address the work that still needs to be done. We shared stories of allied groups working together, funders teaming with service providers and ideas, resources and best practices being shared across the board without pride of ownership.

Our nation’s top leaders turned out to assure caregivers that they too stood at their side. First lady Michelle Obama shared how she has continued to fulfill her promise to America’s caregivers through her Joining Forces initiative. Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald outlined the steps his department is taking to simplify the tremendously busy lives of those caring for our wounded, and offer them better guidance and support. We also heard from Tom Hanks, via a special video message, that he is committed to leading a national awareness campaign to tell every American about the service and value of our military and veteran caregivers.

Our foundation began this week with a private reception for our Dole Caregiver Fellows with Donald Trump, who had asked to meet some of our caregivers after I shared their extraordinary stories with him. Donald was so moved by what he heard that he announced a generous donation to our foundation to help us continue our work to better support caregivers.

The week concluded with an inspiring interfaith and congressional prayer breakfast reception with Pastor Joel Osteen, Sen. Johnny Isakson and the co-chairs of our Hidden Heroes Congressional Caucus, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sens. John McCain and Jack Reed and Rep. Jeff Miller. Pastor Osteen was our first faith leader to pledge his commitment to our military and veteran caregivers, and this year he brought pastors from across America to join him in supporting our mission.

We enjoyed the company of many national leaders this week, yet the stars of these events, though you may not know them by name, were the caregivers themselves. They took to the stage and to the media and to the offices of nearly 200 members of Congress to share their front-line stories of what they have gained for themselves and for their loved ones, and what they still needed.

I think back to the days when I first met these hidden heroes, anchored to the side of their loved ones yet humbly blending in with the background. I couldn’t help but sit on the stage at this week’s summit with a smile on my face and a tear in my eye, witnessing the progress we’ve made and the caregiver voices that are now heard at the highest levels of our nation.

Military families have served our nation for nearly 240 years, and it is truly inspiring to see America come together around the loved ones caring for our wounded, ill and injured warriors in the ways that they need and deserve.

As we look ahead to a weekend that honors the men and women who gave their lives for our freedom, we know that we are truly blessed to have hidden heroes comforting and caring for the warriors who are thankfully still with us.

• Elizabeth Dole is a former U.S. Senator from North Carolina, a former U.S. transportation secretary under President Ronald Reagan, a former U.S. labor secretary under President George H.W. Bush and the founder of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, which created the Caring for Military Families program.

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