- - Wednesday, September 28, 2016

“I never knew anyone else felt this way. There are so many who don’t understand. Some even judge. I thought I was all alone — I was about to give up — until you shared. Now I have hope.” The frustration and fervent thank you expressed in these words from a caregiver spouse to a caregiver supporter captures the essence of the connection those providing care for our veterans seek — the consoling compassion and trustworthy truthfulness of peers who are also walking their journey. Their challenge has been to find these peers. That challenge is being further addressed this week with the launch of what we are calling the Peer Mentor Program to strengthen the secure, caregiver-only, Online Community of the Military and Veteran Caregiver Network (MVCN).

An informal, self-help underground has existed among many of the caregivers of our nation’s wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans. They are problem-solvers who are champions at applying every ounce of their ingenuity and tenacity to support those they love, keep their families intact and do what’s right and best. But spread out across the country and frequently alone in their community, the veteran family has found it hard to locate and truly connect with others living a similar experience.

Now these caregivers can find, and be found, by their peers through a site that offers best-practice peer support training and matching, as well as access to a master calendar and resource library that lists thousands of activities and resources available across the country. Regardless of their veteran’s era of service, their relationship to their veteran or their location, they can now come together in safety to share their most private of fears and be matched with a peer who has walked in their shoes.

Former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the nationally recognized champion for these caregivers, who she admiringly calls “hidden heroes,” has joined with Veterans Administration Secretary Bob McDonald to draw attention to their continuing needs and the programs available to assist them. One of the programs they have highlighted is the Network, or MVCN, which the Mrs. Dole’s foundation helped to initiate as its anchor sponsor.

The Network began with a pledge to respond to the 2014 RAND Corp. report, which found greater isolation, depression and poor health among the nation’s 5.5 million pre- and post-September 11 caregivers. MVCN has responded by creating the first-of-its-kind secure, caregiver-only, online community, peer mentor and support group programs, which offer caregivers the same best practices that the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors has used successfully for more than 20 years, providing peer support to more than 50,000 survivors after the death of a loved one in the military.

During its first year of operation, the Network (which is free to caregivers, partners and providers, thanks to the generous support of Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, the Wounded Warrior Project and the Bob Woodruff Foundation) has hosted over 900,000 caregiver-supporting connections, engaged 850,000 in caregiver-related commentary on social media, shared caregiver events 50,000 times, vetted and publicized 3,500 resources specifically for caregivers, facilitated 15,000 online caregiver connections, and created safe, secure caregiver-only space for sharing about the most demanding and secret issues, in over 25 private discussion groups. This week, the Network is launching its eagerly awaited Peer Mentor Program, which will match caregivers with trained peer supporters with similar experience to support the peer sharing of the comfortable and consoling companionship that has been found to increase knowledge, skills, hope and health outcomes.

The Network complements its own peer-based programs by tapping into the expertise of more than 200 nonprofit partner organizations that also serve caregivers. These groups, such as the caregiver coaches of Operation Family Caregiver of the Rosalynn Carter Institute, the severely injured Independence Program of the Wounded Warrior Project, the community-based empowerment of America’s Warrior Partnership, the training expertise of Psych Armor, the volunteer outreach of the American Legion Auxiliary, the new avatars being built for caregivers by Blue Star Families — and the recently announced Hidden Heroes campaign of Mrs. Dole and actor Tom Hanks.

The MVCN is helping to ensure that caregivers can reach out to a peer who gets it, reach up to receive the hope and guidance they need and reach the goals they have for themselves and their families. The Network will help ensure that caregivers have secure access to the irreplaceable power of their peers and, with their partners, it will make sure that these caregivers, these heroes, are no longer hidden from one another or the resources they need.

Lynda C. Davis is executive vice president of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), executive director of the Military and Veteran Caregiver Network, and a former deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy.

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