Actor Tom Hanks will lead a national campaign that will launch this fall aimed at raising public awareness of the service, needs and value of caregivers of wounded, ill and injured troops and veterans.
These caregivers "live all across America, and in all of our communities," Hanks said Wednesday, speaking in a videotaped message at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation's 2015 Hidden Heroes Coalition Summit.
"They never had any real preparation for the job as caregiver, but they became so in an instant with little warning other than a phone call or email that changed their lives and defined the great challenges that had been thrust upon them," Hanks said.
"The public is aware that our veterans experience these issues, but most are unaware of the impact on caregivers," said Brian Vines, who has been caring for his wife, Natalie, since 2010 after she was wounded in Iraq, and struggled to find resources to help her.
"Caregiver resources are appreciated, but limited," Vines said, noting that he had to rely on word of mouth to learn what was available.
"It's a challenge to care for our veterans, run the house, manage the finances, and set aside some time for us to recoup," he said, adding that the lack of information about these resources can lead to feelings of isolation, helplessness and depression.
"As the public becomes more informed, more resources will be directed to help caregivers," he said. "Public support contributes to a greater appreciation for the work of caregivers, and how they are essential to the mental, emotional and physical health of their veterans."
The awareness campaign was one of several announced initiatives aimed at helping strengthen military and veteran caregivers, who often feel frustrated and overwhelmed with their multiple responsibilities.
"It's truly inspiring to see America come together around the loved ones of our wounded, ill and injured warriors in the ways they need and deserve," said Elizabeth Dole, whose namesake foundation launched the National Coalition for Military Caregivers a year ago.
But she noted that the foundation's work has just started. She described an array of initiatives that have gotten underway in the last year by public, private, nonprofit and faith-based organizations.
"This is America's new normal," Dole said. "For too long, they've traveled this road alone."
Her foundation has established seven "impact councils" that have crafted plans for actions needed in the areas of community support at home; education and training; employment and workplace support; financial and legal issues; interfaith action and ministry; mental and physical health; and respite care.
Another initiative is a national peer support network launched Wednesday, connecting military and veteran caregivers in an effort to reduce their isolation and share their knowledge about resources.
This support network will be open to all military and veteran caregivers, including caregivers of pre-9/11 veterans who have not had access to some of the same benefits recently put in place for caregivers of warriors of the post-9/11 era. The network also will be open to all caregivers, regardless of their relationship to the service member or veteran.
The Military and Veteran Caregiver Network will offer trained peer mentors, community-based peer support groups, a resource library, a master calendar of events, and other resources.
The Veterans Affairs Department has been taking steps to make its systems easier for veterans as well as caregivers, said VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who added that veterans "will be the center of everything" his department does.
"If we're going to be veteran-centric, we're going to be caregiver-centric, too," he said.
For example, VA is moving to align hundreds of websites related to a variety of VA programs and services through a single portal, which is expected to go live for testing soon, he said. About 50 veterans, along with some caregivers, will be involved in the test.
VA is also moving to one central toll-free number, and away from its current 900 toll-free numbers for various programs.
"You need to pick up the phone, make one call, get your answers and get back to your veteran or your family, and you need to talk to a human being," McDonald said, drawing audience applause.
He said veterans and caregivers will still be able to contact their providers in the way they prefer, but if they don't know exactly who to call for particular information, this general number will guide them.
First lLady Michelle Obama, who helped launch the coalition last year, reaffirmed the Joining Forces commitment to helping caregivers, for whom more resources are becoming available every day.
"Caring for our wounded warriors cannot be a one-person assignment. It's a solemn obligation for our entire country to be there for you. You are part of that security that helps keep us safe," Obama said. "It's a way for the rest of us to fulfill our duty to those who sacrificed so much."
She said the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and Give An Hour are teaming up with Easters Seals on a webinar for caregivers on identifying the five signs of mental distress, and also will train faith leaders across the country on those five signs. The effort includes providing education and training to community mental health providers on the military culture.
Obama noted that a group of five women who met at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and exchanged support and resources has now grown to about 100, and that has grown into a DoD initiative with peer support groups for military caregivers at 60 installations around the world.
Caregivers spoke about the variety of resources and assistance that have been helpful to them and their families.
Carrie Fisher left her 16-year career with a utility company to become caregiver to her husband, Eric, who suffered a heart attack during a rocket strike while on his sixth deployment, and has continuing health problems.
She has found a part-time job with the local school district, which allowed her to work at home — and she has even worked from her husband's bedside when he's had to return to the hospital.
"I'm so grateful to my own employer for their flexibility," she said.
Jessica Allen, caregiver to her husband, Charles, wounded over four years ago when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, said the Fisher House's Hero Miles program paid for her trips back and forth to her husband's bedside when she was trying to hold down her job while caring for him.
And when they decided to build a home because their two-story house doesn't accommodate his needs, they were amazed to learn that a number of community organizations and donors — including some from other states — stepped up to help them.
They will move into their new home in June. "Every day I'm in this house I will always remember all the people who came together to help it become reality," she said.