- - Tuesday, February 14, 2017

During a recent news conference, President Trump reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to helping our nation’s veterans, many of whom face steep mental and physical challenges after returning from their time on the battlefield. As the longest war in U.S. history continues, so too does the responsibility to care for these brave men and women who have sacrificed so much for our freedom.

While access to care has improved at the Department of Veterans Affairs over the last few years, the new administration must recognize that the care for our veterans does not fall entirely on the shoulders of the government.

Not by a long shot.

In actuality, many family members or friends step into the role of a military caregiver without sufficient assistance and support from government programs. These spouses, mothers, dads, children, siblings or friends are typically taking on the role of caregiver for the first time — with little or no training — while managing complex injuries and illnesses over a lifetime of care.

When my husband Bob Dole was admitted to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for an extended period of time, my eyes were opened to the tremendous challenges facing the loved ones caring for our wounded veterans. Indeed, all the science and experience points to an undeniable societal crisis that demands a national response.

Though military caregivers are not always visible, they are all around us: According to a first-ever assessment of this community by the RAND Corp., there are more than 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers in the United States. As an unpaid work force, these “hidden heroes” are providing nearly $14 billion in services annually to care for those who have returned from war. These are costs that would otherwise be borne by society.

The research also shows that military caregivers often face these challenges alone, isolated from the community around them. Many caregivers have been forced to become the sole breadwinner of the household, navigating a complex health care and benefits system while trying to raise a family. Military caregivers must also confront the long-term challenges that invisible wounds may present their loved one, such as post-traumatic stress and depression.

What’s equally troubling is that caregiving is hurting the nation’s caregivers themselves. The RAND study found that those caring for post-9/11 veterans are suffering depression at nearly four times the rate of civilian caregivers. Many spend hours each day providing care and — because of the multiple and serious conditions they are caring for — consistently experience more personal health problems, financial challenges, workplace issues or strains in family relationships as compared to non-caregivers.

The Trump administration and David Shulkin, the nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, must take note that the situation with caregivers of veterans is a silent crisis, one in which those most in need of help are often too overloaded and stressed to ask for it.

That’s why the Elizabeth Dole Foundation launched the Hidden Heroes campaign last fall — to bring public attention to this crisis and to better connect military caregivers to resources and support. The Foundation also awards innovation grants to nonprofit organizations that make a direct impact in the lives of America’s veteran caregivers.

Underscoring the grassroots nature of the effort, the U.S. Conference of Mayors last summer passed a resolution encouraging all cities to become military and veteran caregiver supportive cities. More than 70 cities thus far have signed on to participate.

Tom Hanks, chairman of the Hidden Heroes Campaign, succinctly captured the sentiment of the cities and organizations that are joining forces under the Foundation’s leadership to help the unsung heroes who care for the nation’s veterans.

“Military caregivers don’t often ask for help, but they deserve our support,” he said. “Together, we all can bring military caregivers out of the shadows to honor their service and strengthen their support systems.”

Elizabeth Dole is a former U.S. senator from North Carolina who has also previously served as secretary of the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Labor. She is founder and president of Caring for Military Families: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation.

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