The life of a military caregiver is a relationship that many involved in a relationship with a military member do not expect or sign on for. Elizabeth Dole, wife of former military member Sen. Bob Dole, recalls her meeting a range of caregivers when she toured Walter Reed Medical Center three years ago. It was during that tour that she realized that supporters truly needed more support than what they were getting.
Frequently termed “hidden heroes,” those who give care and support military members are in need of greater support, according to Dole, who listened to the frustrations that these caregivers struggled with on a daily basis. The Elizabeth Dole Foundation commissioned a study through the RAND Corporation to actually determine the hard numbers associated with the growing number of military caregivers and their needs.
There are 1.1 million caregivers of military members from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars that are engaged in daily struggles on the home front. Jessica Klein, 29, is one such caregiver. Her husband, Capt. Edward “Flip” Klein, was a strapping 6 foot tall West Point graduate before he lost both his legs and the primary muscle involved in sitting as a result of an IED in Afghanistan. The two had plans to start a family and climb Mount Rainier, among other life goals. Now, Jessica is her husband’s diminutive caregiver and while she is determined to care for her husband, she is among the million or so caregivers who are trying to balance a job – whether full time or not – with full time caregiving.
Unfortunately, due to the burden that being a military caregiver can pose, caregivers are often required to give up their jobs in order to care for their spouse or child full-time. Even more tragic is that many of these families do not have health insurance in order to cover the additional medical costs that can be incurred as a result of the unique injuries that many military personnel have endured. Also, a RAND Corporation report released early last year noted that military caregivers are quite unique in that, unlike other caregivers who often care for their elderly relatives, military caregivers are frequently young mothers with very young children and there are a range of injuries associated with their spouse that are not often seen in other patients requiring care.
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be an injury that is also devastating for families, but its wounds are often unseen. It is, however, a serious condition which plagues more women than men, though those who have experienced military service are more likely than not to experience the condition. There have also been links found between PTSD and traumatic brain injury, and the combination of the two can make a military member’s return to civilian life challenging to say the least. Blair Hughes is the full time caregiver of her husband Jonah, who survived 10 bomb blasts during various tours of duty. It was the last one that ultimately took its toll on the military man, injuring his spine, head and back. It also left him with traumatic brain injury and PTSD, according to Blair, and it has ultimately meant that the family has had to be incredibly careful about how and when they interact with others. In addition, they are parents of an autistic 8-year-old who loves to make exploding noises, which upsets Jonah terribly.
Blair has noticed that because she has had to be extra-vigilant about road hazards when her husband drives – he insists on it as a need for control, though he should not drive because of his PTSD – or about when they actually choose to go out. She notes there have been times when they have had to leave a full grocery cart in the middle of the grocery store because Jonah has become crippled by panic, and most outings exhaust him to the point of needing a nap when they return home. She has developed secondary PTSD as a result of her husband’s condition.
The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense are including caregivers in their treatment plans for veterans, and there are efforts afoot to compile a list of best practices. Meanwhile, over half of the caregivers in a post-9/11 world are without a support network of their own. The report from the RAND Corporation concluded that as far as military caregivers were concerned, more support was needed for the supporters.
By Christina St-Jean