A new push to help families of veterans

Recognition is growing in the military that soldiers' injuries put extra hardships on immediate family members.

Mark Murrmann/Zuma Press/Newscom

It's become a new refrain: Families of veterans, say advocates and senior military officials, are becoming "brittle" from the strains of war and need help.

The controversy last year surrounding Walter Reed military hospital called attention to the problems of ailing veterans, and the Pentagon moved to improve care and shore up lagging programs. Now the focus is broadening, as advocates and military officials recognize that family members of injured veterans endure extra hardships and need help caring for their loved ones.

This new push is as much for members of families caring for injured veterans who will most likely not return to active duty, as for families of active duty National Guard and Reservists whose families are dealing with the impact of their deployment overseas.

Some advocacy groups insist that the families of injured veterans are in crisis. "We have to take care of the caregivers," says Joy Elam, assistant national legislative director for the advocacy group Disabled American Veterans. "There are huge gaps in those programs."

About 40 percent of the roughly 300,000 veterans from the war in Iraq have accessed Veterans Administration mental healthcare benefits, for everything from posttraumatic stress disorder to substance abuse and "mood disorders," says Rep. Michael Michaud, a Democrat from Maine who chairs a subcommittee on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, and held a hearing on the matter last week.

"Veterans' mental-health conditions not only affect the returning veterans, but also have a significant impact on their families," he says. "While the VA is working hard to care for veterans with mental-health needs, too often families of these veterans are neglected."

The case of Annette McLeod illustrates this. McLeod's husband, Wendell, is a soldier who was severely injured in July 2005 near the Iraq-Kuwaiti border when a truck door blew open and sent him sailing through the air. He suffered back and shoulder injuries, but also developed a "cognitive dysfunction" that has made it impossible for him to return to work thus far.

He now waits to hear if the Army will give him permanent disability status. Annette had to quit her job at the assembly line where she had worked for 20 years to take care of him full time. The couple live on his VA income and Social Security.

The last few years have left her feeling isolated, overly dependent on government aid that she says is unpredictable, and sometimes depressed. She says she remains optimistic about a life that is now forever changed, but she would like education benefits and other assistance to help her make it through.

Citing the impact her husband's injuries have had on her life, she supports benefits programs that could help her take care of her husband or get an education to allow her to get back to work. "I sort of feel like I've been pushed aside," she says.

Military family advocates such as Elam are pushing Congress for more "caregiver assistance" programs that will help a spouse or parent, for example, learn how to care for the injured veteran. The VA now has about eight such assistance centers, all pilot programs. But advocates want an expanded program that provides "emotional support" for caregivers in rural areas and training in other coping skills to manage their new challenges.

Many of these caregivers need mental-health services, and groups like the National Military Family Association are pushing the VA and Defense Department to hire more mental and healthcare providers to assist service members, veterans, and their families.

The fact that Congress has expressed an interest in this emerging issue and held the hearing last week is good news in and of itself, say military advocates. But they also want action.

"That's a leap forward that we are very excited about," says Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association, based near Washington. "It's about time. They can't ignore the families."

Ms. Raezer is concerned that while there is reasonably good support for veterans and even their families when they are in active care at places like Walter Reed or the National Naval Medical Center in Washington, support begins to deteriorate when people go back home. She and others want to make care more accessible, especially to those who have left active duty and don't live near a military installation or other facility.

Over the past several years, the military has paid more attention to the needs of families. Although the legislative focus is on families of injured veterans, military commanders also talk about the importance of taking care of active duty or Reserve members' families. Commanders say there is a moral imperative to do so, but it also makes good business sense.

The Marine Corps, for example, is asking for an additional $100 million for family programs, including for family readiness officers – dedicated individuals who can assist families during deployments. The Army, too, is creating a "Army Family Covenant," a $1.4 billion program to take care of active-duty and National Guard and Reserve families with expanded childcare, respite care, and services for youth.

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