Maria Shriver

My Project: Senator Elizabeth Dole

Senator Elizabeth Dole announces the launch of Hidden Heroes: The National Coalition for Military Caregivers in the East Room of the White House, April 11, 2014. Lynn Dykstra / Focused Images

Senator Elizabeth Dole has spent her life in public service, serving in the United States Senate, the cabinets of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. H Bush, and as the head of the American Red Cross.

In 2012, Senator Dole’s passion for public service took her in a new direction. She founded Caring for Military Families: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation and began working to raise awareness of the tireless work of voluntary military caregivers and to increase the services and support available to them.

Senator Dole knows firsthand what it is to be a military caregiver; in 2010, her husband, Bob Dole, the former Senator, Presidential candidate, and a World War II veteran, suffered a medical emergency and spent almost a year recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

It was there that Dole witnessed the extraordinary, unremitting efforts of loved ones caring for wounded service members and veterans. Their commitment, and its clear emotional, physical, and financial toll, made a lasting impression on Senator Dole, and she left determined to better serve their needs.

Here, Senator Dole shares her thoughts on the quiet, selfless work of military caregivers and explains why every American can make a meaningful difference in the lives of these “hidden heroes.”

Can you talk about your decision to get involved in this work?

In 2010, my husband Bob and I were spending time with veterans at the National World War II Memorial. During our visit there, one of the veterans called out to my husband, “Senator Dole, you are standing in a pool of blood!” After greeting the remaining veterans, we rushed Bob to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for what would become an almost yearlong stay.

As I became a regular around Walter Reed at that time, I met dozens of wounded warriors and their caregivers, primarily young spouses and parents. Many of these warriors were facing severe, lifelong injuries, and their caregivers were quietly, selflessly, supporting them in their recoveries. In talking with the caregivers, I learned how hard it is to negotiate and coordinate diverse health care systems because of their loved one’s multiple physical wounds and illnesses. I heard about the difficulties they encounter determining services and benefits due to bureaucratic obstacles. These caregivers, many quite young, were handling the family’s legal and financial matters; and providing emotional support and stability, shielding their wounded warriors from emotional triggers, often on an almost daily basis. These hidden heroes were administering medications and providing for daily activities of living such as bathing, dressing, and feeding—many while raising children. It was clear to me that military caregiving had become a societal crisis that required a national response, and my heart was drawn to establish a foundation to raise awareness of their challenges and provide solutions.

What have you been most surprised to learn?

I’ve heard countless compelling caregiver stories that have been both inspirational and, because of the myriad of challenges they’re facing, troubling. Yet, perhaps the most surprising information I have learned came from the RAND Corporation study commissioned by our foundation. It was the first comprehensive nationwide evidence-based study of military and veteran caregivers. The study quantified the magnitude of this issue for the first time, pointing out that 5.5 million loved ones are caring for wounded service members and veterans across America.

The voluntary care they are providing is estimated to be saving our nation nearly $14 billion every year – an extraordinary testament to the vital role they play.

The voluntary care they are providing is estimated to be saving our nation nearly $14 billion every year – an extraordinary testament to the vital role they play. We also learned that post-9/11 caregivers are facing financial, legal, and physical and emotional health challenges at much higher rates than caregivers from prior war eras. Particularly surprising to me was that over 60% of post-9/11 caregivers attempt to maintain gainful employment in addition to their caregiving duties. These caregivers are their family’s only source of income, yet many are spending 20 to 40 hours on top of full time work caring for their wounded warriors at home. This contributes significantly to workplace strains, unplanned leave, and increased emotional stress on their family members—particularly for those caregivers who have children.

What do you most want people to know?

That the challenges faced by our nation’s military and veteran caregivers are so real and significant right now that every American has the ability to make a meaningful difference in the lives of these hidden heroes. Employers can adopt flexible work policies that allow caregivers to not have to choose between caregiving and providing income for their families. Lawyers and financial planners can offer pro bono long term planning services that are especially critical for post-9/11 caregivers. Neighbors can help run errands and look after children. Churches can provide respite care and counseling. Nonprofits, community and civic organizations can adapt their family support programs to include caregivers. There are so many ways – large and small – that individuals and organizations can offer their support. This year, our foundation launched Hidden Heroes: The National Coalition for Military Caregivers to develop and inspire such action on behalf of our nation’s caregivers through the public and private sectors, nonprofit organizations, and the labor and faith communities. We hope every American will go to our website and sign on to support these hidden heroes.

Dole Fellows pictured with Congresswoman Susan Davis, Senator Elizabeth Dole, and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi on April, 10, 2014. Lynn Dykstra / Focused Images

Who or what has made the greatest impression on you during your involvement?

Every year, the foundation names a class of Elizabeth Dole Fellows, who are spouses, parents, and other loved ones actively caring for wounded warriors representing all 50 states. These fellows graciously and selflessly lend their precious time and extraordinary talents to serve as advisors and advocates for the foundation and their fellow caregivers in their home states and beyond. Among our current class is a father who has spent many sleepless nights providing and managing 24 hour care for his severely injured son, a sister staying by her brother’s side as he faces the invisible wounds of PTSD and TBI, a young wife who has taught her small children how to keep hallways clear for their daddy’s wheelchair and when to steer clear of his emotional outbursts, and a close friend who helps the veteran in her life manage a daily schedule of medical appointments and every day activities that otherwise trigger stress and anxiety. The fact that these individuals provide such wonderful care to their wounded warriors and still find the energy to work with our foundation is incredibly inspiring and humbling.

What has been the hardest part of this work, or how has it most challenged you?

The hardest part of our work is educating our nation on the extent of the challenges faced by military and veteran caregivers. Our nation has overlooked this issue for far too long and, in many cases, the time-consuming role of caregiving prevents caregivers from advocating for themselves. Once people understand the scope of the problems, they are always quick to ask, “What can I do to help?” So, it is the process of providing the information to leaders, organizations and individuals that has been a significant part of our Foundation’s focus.

Once people understand the scope of the problems, they are always quick to ask, “What can I do to help?”

With the help of many supportive people, we have made tremendous headway on raising awareness this year. Our foundation announced the findings of the RAND study on military caregivers, revealing the gaps in services and support facing these hidden heroes. First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden stood by my side at the White House as I announced the launch of Hidden Heroes: The National Coalition for Military Caregivers. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senator John McCain, Senator Jack Reed, and Congressman Jeff Miller announced that they would co-chair a congressional caucus on military caregiving at my request. More than 50 organizations have already pledged their commitment to develop support services for caregivers through our coalition. Among our leaders are Pastor Joel Osteen of the faith community; Rich Trumka, President of AFL-CIO; and Tom Donohue, President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And our Elizabeth Dole Fellows program has enabled active caregivers to share their personal stories and perspectives on the national stage and act as ambassadors and advocates for the cause across all 50 states.

How has this work changed you?

I always viewed my work across 45 years of public service as a mission field. And similarly I’ve always believed in the great power Americans can have when they come together to take on a mission such as this to help those greatly in need. I’ve been blown away, humbled really, with the responses we have been getting from Americans in every corner of the country.

I’ve always believed in the great power Americans can have when they come together to take on a mission such as this to help those greatly in need.

Democrats and Republicans are working together at a time when some think that’s not possible, the private sector and labor have stepped up, nonprofits are collaborating and partnering instead of competing, and faith communities representing the richness of beliefs across our great nation are coming together to offer support. I’m not sure that I’ve changed as much as I have grown in my appreciation and passion for what it means to be an American. Right now 5.5 million mothers, fathers, spouses, and other loved ones desperately need our help and it’s been truly inspiring to see America come to their side more and more every single day.

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