As a caregiver of a catastrophically disabled Veteran, I'm in a lifelong battle to support my husband. Too often, the VA forces me into battle alone.
Eight years ago, my husband stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. He lost his left leg and much of his left arm, and barely survived.
Mike's war was over. But mine would be fought on the home front. I was going to have to battle for him.
Sometimes that battle takes place in the hospital, as I help my husband through another surgery — 119 and counting. Sometimes it's in our home, as I try to juggle three young kids, a plumbing issue and a health care bill, all while trying not to burn dinner.
Caregivers like me are supporting catastrophically wounded Veterans all over the country. All too often, we're carrying out that mission alone, with insufficient help from the very government that sent our husbands, wives, sons and daughters off to war. My husband proudly volunteered to serve and wanted to go to the front lines. Never did we think that the greatest fight would occur once he came home.
An army of caregivers on the home front
Our nation — federal officials and civilians alike — must take more concrete action to care for Veterans and their families.
As many as 5.5 million caregivers struggle to care for disabled Veterans like my husband. These wounded warriors, especially the catastrophically disabled, need round-the-clock assistance because they have a hard time completing the tasks associated with daily living — such as going to the bathroom or getting out of bed.
In our case, my husband needs assistance to complete all his daily tasks, from dressing, to getting cleaned and ready, to planning the day. Every day, I am constantly thinking for two people.
Catastrophically wounded Vets also require lots of medical care. In addition to his surgeries, my husband has gone through years of speech, visual, physical and occupational therapy.
The Department of Veterans Affairs offers caregivers support for coordinating these services as well as a stipend. Caregivers could receive $7,800 to $30,000 in any given year. To calculate caregiver stipends, the VA looks at a typical home health aide's hourly wage in a Veteran's geographic location, as well as the number of hours of care that Veteran needs. The VA caps the hours of care at 40 per week.
That's almost insulting. I am a caregiver every second of every day. One-fifth of caregivers report caring for their Veterans 80 hours a week.
Securing caregiver status can be a nightmare. VA guidelines dictate that the maximum wait for approval should be 45 days. But according to a recent investigation from the Office of Inspector General at the VA, more than half of Veteran caregivers wait three to six months. One West Virginia couple waited almost three years for approval.
The VA has also been known to drop caregivers from support programs without explanation. Between 2014 and 2017, the Seattle and South Texas VAs cut the number of caregivers they recognized by almost 50 percent. Portland, Oregon, made a 66 percent cut. The VA in Charleston, South Carolina, reduced the number of caregivers supported by 94 percent — from about 200 to 11.
VA's caregiver red tape needs reform
Fortunately, federal officials are beginning to take action. As part of the recently passed VA MISSION Act, Congress will expand caregiver support to all Veterans — not just those injured after 9/11.
But there's more to be done. The VA must approve applications for official caregiver status more quickly and better tailor its resources to the neediest families, especially those of catastrophically disabled Vets.
One concrete thing the VA can do is give family members of catastrophically wounded Veterans a permanent caregiver designation. Today, in order to maintain caregiver status, I am re-evaluated every single year to make sure that Mike still has his injuries and still requires a caregiver — as though amputated limbs could somehow grow back.
Further, every three months, in the midst of an already hectic life, I have to speak to my caregiver coordinator to check in and comply or risk being dropped from the program.
Any casual observer can see that my battle is lifelong. The VA shouldn't need periodic check-ins to make sure of that.
There's a role for the average civilian, too. My advice? Don't ask how you can help — just do it. Help with transport for Veterans, bring over a home-cooked meal, or drop off basic essentials — caregivers are in survival mode and receiving help without having to ask for it is the biggest gift. Search for nonprofits in your area that can help you connect with local Veterans and caregivers.
My husband paid a huge price in service of his country. It is the honor of my lifetime to take care of him. But the caregivers now waging the war at home must be remembered, too.