By Devon Bozard

The heart contracts upon hearing the moving stories of spouses and families who find themselves in the position of caregiver to a loved one who has been wounded in service to our country.  These “Hidden Heroes” often feel adrift in a confusing sea of emotions, medical care, resources, and legal issues.   On November 13, 2017, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs presented the 2nd Annual National Convening, “The Military Caregiver Journey.”  The conference provided an opportunity for hundreds of caregivers and representatives of organizations supporting them to gather and hear each other’s stories in an effort to understand the needs of caregivers at each stage of their experience.  MSJDN President Libby Jamison and I were privileged to attend this event in D.C.; we hoped to explore if there were opportunities for MSJDN and Justice for Military Families members to provide assistance to caregivers and their families.  MSJDN member Pat Ochan was also participating in the day’s activities in her role as an Elizabeth Dole Foundation Fellow.

Former Senator Elizabeth Dole and Secretary David Shulkin announced the joint “Campaign for Inclusive Care” in their opening remarks. This program seeks to incorporate caregivers into the medical team for veterans and recognize the important role they play in the care and well-being of patients.   In order to understand how agencies and organizations can best support caregivers, RAND Corporation has drafted a literal working map of the process that a caregiver undergoes when faced with the ongoing challenge of responsibility for a loved one.  One focus of the convening was for caregivers to critique the map, so that it could best represent their experience and subsequently allow others to effectively support them.

Pat Ochan weighs in during a breakout session

In breakout sessions caregivers and representatives worked to identify needs at different stages of the experience.  Clearly caregivers need many things: recognition and understanding, emotional support, time for themselves, physical assistance and financial help.  However, repeatedly, caregivers mentioned craving communication and advocacy throughout their entire journey.  Often caregivers no longer have access to the JAG, however, they need advocates with specialized knowledge.They need to know what benefits their service member is entitled to in a timely manner.  They often require assistance with navigating the legal conundrums that can arise in specific situations.  Medical, legal and financial planning documents can be either a roadblock when lacking, or a gateway when properly prepared. For caregivers, guardianship and estate planning are more complicated issues. Effective case management at the VA may be a problem.  With advocacy, benefits that might have been initially denied might be eligible for appeal.  Patently, there may be a wealth of opportunity for MSJDN members to assist caregivers through national or local organizations or in a pro bono capacity, when possible, through JMF or private firms.

Laura Bush addressing the summit

Former First Lady and keynote speaker Laura Bush summed up the tone of the day by asking,“How can we make caregivers’ lives better?” These men and women are as selfless as the military veterans for whom they care.  They provide services that have real financial worth to our country at a cost to themselves.  As MSJDN and JMF continue to explore ways to ease the experience of these deserving people, we encourage members who feel compelled to seek out ways to assist caregivers through their own avenues or local organizations.