Many veterans will spend Veterans Day attending parades commemorating their military service. Others, concerned about the pandemic or perhaps battling PTSD, may not come out at all. But for most of our ill or injured veterans, no matter where they choose to commemorate this day, there will be a caregiver by their side. We caregivers are there in times of celebration, tribulation, and all the beautiful times in between.
There are 5.5 million of us in the United States caring for aging, injured or injured Veterans. And 1.1 million of us are caring for post-9/11 veterans. Almost a third of us are under 30 years old. And there are some things we would like you to know about us.
For starters, this Veterans Day is very difficult. For caregivers and veterans of the post 9/11 generation, today brings a lot of very difficult emotions. Over the past two years, veterans and their caregivers have felt the stress and aggravating isolation that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on them. This year, we have fought against the feelings of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. We were faced head-on with the emotional toll of the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. Many of us still have questions. Questions like, now that the US war in Afghanistan is over, how can we ensure that post 9/11 veterans are taken care of as a whole? And can we assure them that their sacrifices matter and that they are never forgotten?
In addition, post-9/11 veterans have an increased need for caregivers. The new generation of veterans have significantly higher disability rates than previous generations.
About 41 percent of those who served after September 11, 2001 have Disability ratings from the Department of Veterans Affairs. This is almost double the disability rate from previous wars. This is because where former service members may have died in battle, luckily many of our loved ones have survived. Every day, we are grateful that battlefield medicine is saving more lives than ever. But many of our soldiers still returned home with physical wounds and invisible wounds of war, including head injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dealing with invisible wounds is both complex and difficult. Going forward, the percentage of 9/11 veterans who will need caregivers is expected to increase.
Here’s another thing we’d like you to know: You might not know that you are your young veteran’s caregiver. I am one of those caregivers who didn’t know I was a caregiver until someone else identified me as a caregiver.
When my husband Marine was in the Wounded Warrior Battalion, a nurse asked me if I was his orderly. “No, my husband is young. I said. “I’m just his wife.”
“You are probably both,” she corrected me very gently.
As a young wife with a 3 year old child, a life of care fell on my knees at a time when I already had a lot on my plate. But caregiving is not just for the elderly. Many of us are younger than previous generations. We are military spouses, parents or even fellow combatants. Often times, we are parents who get involved as lifelong caregivers for their veteran children, many of whom were injured incredibly young during their service and never married.
And caregivers of military spouses often balance young children, care for aging parents and a permanently disabled veteran. And although our roles are more critical than ever, much of our work remains invisible.
That’s why if you’re a veteran’s caregiver, it’s really important to surround yourself with outside support. If you have come to realize that you are a caregiver, I encourage you to let go of any stigma you may have. Start by simply recognizing the tasks that you already do each day. Our roles are so varied that they include day-to-day tasks such as medication management, healthcare coordination, emotional support and more. And we make sure that veterans engage in their communities and live their lives to the fullest.
Connect with people who just understand and won’t need a full story. They just know what you mean when you say you’re expecting a doctor call or having a rough day. Their words of wisdom can sustain you like nothing else will. The night after the nurse called me a caregiver, I went home and looked for “military caregiver”. At that point, a whole world opened up. I found people who were living that same life.
My caregiving journey began 10 years ago and today I am proud to serve as the Director of the American Red Cross Military Caregiver and Veteran Network. Daily, I connect caregivers with each other and essential resources to support their families. I am proud to have helped over 8,200 people in need through peer support, online resources, mental wellness workshops and more. I am extremely proud of the work we do at MVCN.
And what matters most is finding that support system that can just listen, validate, and take care of you and your veteran.
Because what we do is so important. Our veterans take pride in their service. They do not feel that their ability to serve ends after leaving the military. And they don’t want their best days to be behind them just because they are physically or invisibly injured. They want to continue serving their local communities.
And so many veterans are able to do this because of our role as caregivers. We are proud of their military service, but what they are today also fills us with pride in new and meaningful ways.
Today, you can’t talk about post 9/11 veterans without talking about veteran caregivers. More than any previous generation, we are woven into the fabric of the experience of veterans. And more than ever, we appreciate the strong support from the community.
Mélissa Comeau is a proud caregiver and veteran mom living in Southern California. She is the director of the American Red Cross Network of military and veteran caregivers.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.