Supporting America’s Military Caregivers

Sen. Susan M. Collins

The effects of military service often do not end with a tour of duty. For some veterans and their families, the journey may extend for a lifetime. For those veterans bearing both the visible and invisible scars of conflict, the transition home is often 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 caregivers, heroes in plain clothes, are serving in American cities and towns every single day. In the United States, there are 5.5 million military caregivers. These family members and loved ones provide care on a constant and routine basis to veterans. They are often vital in assisting veterans to make the transition all the way home. Military caregivers improve recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration of wounded, injured, and disabled veterans.

The number of military caregivers has been on the rise as veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan return home. Approximately 20 percent of military caregivers today are caring for a post-9/11 veteran. The needs and experiences of post-9/11 veterans differ from those of pre-9/11 veterans. While veterans from past conflicts and wars are aging and facing age-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular diseases, post-9/11 veterans tend to be younger and face higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse, and traumatic brain injury.

As chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, I recently held a hearing to examine the unique needs of military caregivers and how to better support them.

Those needs were powerfully described by one of our witnesses from Maine, Melanie Swoboda. Melanie and her husband, retired Army Sergeant First Class Joe Swoboda, live in Levant, near Bangor. Joe is a three-time combat veteran of Iraq who twice sustained severe injuries in explosions, in 2003 and 2005, but who continued to serve. It was not until years later that the extent of his traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder were recognized.

Melanie lovingly took on the role as one of America’s hidden heroes, providing her husband’s care, raising their children, and managing the family’s finances. As she put it, “All of the tasks I was doing were the ones you’ll hear any caregiver talking about.” In fact, like so many caregivers, Melanie never thought of herself as one. To her, that’s just what a wife and mother does.

She enrolled in the VA Caregiver Program, which provides a stipend and respite support for post-9/11 veterans, which she said has been crucial for her family. She urged my Senate colleagues to support legislation I introduced with Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act, which would extend this service to veterans and caregivers of all eras.

Melanie also praised the Dole Caregiver Fellowship, a network of knowledgeable caregivers who provide invaluable support. This outstanding initiative was launched by another witness, former Senator Elizabeth Dole, whose husband, former Senator Bob Dole, is a World War II veteran.

When her husband was hospitalized at Walter Reed in 2011, Senator Dole became friends with families caring for many wounded, ill, or injured veterans. Many of these young spouses were in their 20’s and early 30’s. Realizing they had a lifetime of caregiving in front of them, and understanding the critical role caregivers play in helping our wounded warriors recover, she established the Elizabeth Dole Foundation to raise awareness of the importance of supporting these selfless individuals. The Foundation’s “Hidden Heroes” campaign is leading the way in developing solutions to this major challenge.

Our military caregivers, like all caregivers, make many personal and financial sacrifices to ensure that their loved ones have the care they need. They may have to miss work, turn down promotions, or even leave the workforce, creating enormous financial strain for families.

In addition to the Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act, I have introduced bipartisan legislation that would better serve caregivers, including military caregivers. The RAISE Family Caregivers Act would require the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a national strategy to recognize and support our more than 40 million family caregivers. And the Lifespan Respite Care Reauthorization Act would authorize $15 million per year over the next five years to allow full-time caregivers to take a temporary break from their responsibilities. This respite care is critical. It protects the health of caregivers, decreases the need for professional long-term care, and allows individuals who require care to remain at home.

America’s military caregivers enable veterans living with visible and invisible injuries to recover, remain involved with their communities, and enjoy fuller lives. Despite their sacrifice, military caregivers typically do not receive awards and other recognitions for the work that they do. They deserve our support and recognition. We must never forget our military caregivers, who are also true heroes.