By: Sen. Susan M. Collins
Supporting our veterans and those who serve today is among our greatest obligations. That obligation includes supporting America’s “hidden heroes” – the 5.5 million family caregivers who provide essential daily care to loved ones who bear the wounds of their service protecting our nation and our freedom.
The effects of military service often do not end with a tour of duty. For many veterans and their families, the journey sometimes extends for a lifetime. For some veterans with both visible and invisible scars, the transition home is not easy. Recovery, too, can take decades. Along the way, mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, and other family members and friends step in to serve.
Military family caregivers provide roughly $14 billion a year in voluntary, uncompensated care. They often sacrifice their own physical and emotional well being to do so. They may have to miss work, turn down promotions, or even leave the workforce, creating enormous financial strain for families.
Addressing the challenges facing these devoted family caregivers has been one of my highest priorities. In 2017, I chaired a hearing that focused on military caregivers at which former Senator Elizabeth Dole testified. When the VA MISSION Act was enacted in 2018, it included provisions I championed requiring a phased expansion of the VA Caregiver Support Program to include veterans of all generations, rather than only post 9/11 veterans.
Veterans, regardless of when they served, should be eligible for caregiver assistance. For years, the VA Caregiver Support Program has made resources such as a stipend, counseling, and training available to loved ones who have taken on a caregiver role for a veteran with service-connected injuries or illnesses. This important resource can improve quality of life and can result in faster and improved rehabilitation and recovery for a veteran. However, only post-9/11 veteran caregivers have historically been eligible to receive these benefits.
Now, due to the legislation I coauthored, the VA has officially launched the first phase of expansion of the Caregiver Support Program to include pre-9/11 veterans and their caregivers. This first phase of the VA Caregiver Support Program expansion allows the VA to provide a stipend and resources to thousands of caregivers of veterans from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
The expansion rolls out in two phases. Effective this Oct. 1, the first phase included eligible veterans who incurred or aggravated a serious injury in the line of duty on or before May 7, 1975.
Effective Oct. 1, 2022, the second phase will include eligible veterans who incurred or aggravated a serious injury in the line of duty between May 7, 1975, and Sept. 11, 2001. The VA has also expanded and expedited the hiring of key staff to ensure veterans and caregivers receive timely, accurate assessments and eligibility determinations, as well as an improved customer experience.
The progress we have made in supporting military caregivers would not be possible without the untiring efforts of former Senator Elizabeth Dole, whose husband, former Senator Robert Dole, was severely wounded during World War II. Since its founding in 2012, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation has done much to raise awareness of the need to support these selfless caregivers, and in 2014 commissioned the largest-ever study on the vital role military caregivers play and the sacrifices they make.
I was honored to receive the first Congressional Caregiver Champion Award from the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. It was particularly moving to be presented with that award by Maine’s Dole Foundation Caregiver Fellow, Marjorie Pennington, whose husband, Matthew, was grievously wounded in Iraq. Her words describe the dedication of our family caregivers: “He fought for our freedom, and I will always fight for him.” The patriots caring for a wounded warrior are among America’s hidden heroes and they need our support.