Caregivers – our ‘hidden heroes’ – deserve more support

Just like the men and women who bravely fight for our great nation, military and veteran caregivers don’t seek the spotlight. We do not want praise or expect thanks, and we aren’t quick to ask for help, even when we need it.

Right now, an estimated 5.5 million people are providing quality and intensive care to our wounded warriors for injuries both visible and invisible. We provide unpaid care at great savings to our nation, estimated to be worth $15 billion annually, according to the results of a comprehensive study of military caregivers conducted by the RAND Corporation and commissioned by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.

Many of us often neglect our personal health to ensure the health and safety of our loved ones. While many of the strongest people I know are the ones caring for our wounded warriors, the overwhelming emotion and stress of the role puts many of my fellow caregivers at risk for depression, physical illness and familial strain.

The risks associated with caregiving are particularly high for the nation’s 1.1 million post-9/11 caregivers. Too often, today’s generation of military caregivers are excluded from general caregiver support programs. Many existing programs require the care recipient to be at least 60 years old, which excludes more than 80 percent of post-9/11 veterans.

In many cases, we face the challenge of simultaneously serving as the sole financial provider in our households while also being our loved one’s only trusted caregiver. We juggle professional and caregiving responsibilities while maintaining strong, healthy families.

My story began when my husband Joe returned home from deployment in 2005. To cope with his injuries, he turned to self-medication and began going down a dangerous path of self-destruction.

For six years, he had difficulty maintaining regular work due to the effects of PTSD, but no one believed he was injured because his wounds were invisible. By April of 2011, he received medication from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but it took a toll on him. He had trouble functioning and was fatigued to the point that he was no longer able to work.

His personal difficulties continued to escalate until June of that year, when we found ourselves homeless. That’s when I called American Lake VA Medical Center, which is part of the VA Puget Sound Health Care System. We spoke with a counselor who was able to help us. They connected us with the Catholic Community Services of Western Washington in Olympia, who helped us find, and move into, a home. They also covered living expenses while we waited for my husband’s disability rating.

Had it not been for the VA Homeless Prevention Program and Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, we could’ve become one of the tens of thousands of homeless veterans across the nation. Instead, we have a home in Lacey and are financially stable.

As an Elizabeth Dole Fellow, I raise awareness for the challenges of military and veteran caregivers, and personally focus on helping homeless veteran families. Earlier this spring, I joined caregivers from across the nation at the White House to join former U.S. Sen. Dole in launching an initiative, Hidden Heroes: The National Coalition for Military Caregivers, which will unite diverse groups in support of military caregivers.

My husband and I are finally on firm, financial ground. The journey has been challenging, but we never gave up, and organizations like the VA and Catholic Community Services of Western Washington never gave up on us.

Now, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation is allowing me to tell my story, encourage others and do my part to ensure caregivers do not go without critically needed assistance.

I’m proud to be a military caregiver, and today I am asking for your help to support the countless hidden heroes across our country caring for those who cared for us by signing up to be a coalition member, lending support to a local caregiver, or contributing to the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.

Pam Busenius of Lacey is the primary caregiver to her husband, who was severely wounded overseas in 2005.