For many of our nation’s 5.5 million military caregivers — the spouses, family and friends caring for wounded, ill or injured veterans and service members — years may go by before they actually self-identify as caregivers. Even when they do, support can be hard to find. Hidden Heroes, a campaign of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, is working to bring vital attention to the untold stories of military caregivers.
Forging a path
When Natalie was medically retired from the Army with a traumatic brain injury, her husband, Brian Vines, knew he needed to educate himself. “There weren’t any support groups, and even less support for male caregivers,” says Vines. About a year after his wife’s original diagnosis, Vines began to recognize the toll his new role was taking. “A lot of the time you don’t get appreciation for what you’re doing, but you’re giving it your everything because you love this person,” he says. Realizing that he was a full-time caregiver helped Vines find the aid he needed. His advice? “Discuss what you’re going through with other caregivers in a nonjudgmental forum. There have been times where I’ve had to reach out to support groups regarding a specific problem, and they are always quick to suggest resources.”
Mary Ward’s husband, a pre-9/11 Veteran, was diagnosed with ALS in 2010. “Veterans are more likely to get ALS than non-veterans,” she explains. “One of the challenges I faced in becoming a caregiver was just navigating the VA system.” A 2016 Elizabeth Dole Fellow, Ward now works with newer caregivers to help them locate the resources they need and joins with other Fellows to advocate for increased support on Capitol Hill and in their local communities.
Sonia Yulfo, 27, has been caring for her father since July 2014. While the two have always been close, Yulfo recalls the challenges of caring for a parent versus a partner or sibling. “I had to learn how to convince him to do things like take his medicine,” she says. But, through the process, she has also learned just how much patience she has. “You have to be patient with yourself and with the [veteran] you are caring for.”
Looking at the bigger picture
Though the injuries that Jacqueline Goodrich’s husband sustained in Afghanistan in 2012 are permanent injuries, because he was not an amputee, she struggled to secure the support she needed. Even though Goodrich was a full-time caregiver for her husband, they didn’t qualify for any resources for the first several years. “I did most everything on my own in advocating for his care.” When Goodrich ran into hurdles, she tackled the systemic root of the problem. “When your service member encounters an issue, be aware of the policy that it comes from,” she advises other caregivers. “If you can identify that and speak up against it, you can have a more positive effect on change for somebody else.”
Zoe Alexander, [email protected]