White House, advocacy groups pledge to support 2.3 million U.S. children caring for injured veteran parents

First Lady Jill Biden walks into the East Room of the White House with children caring for injured veteran parents on Wednesday, November 10, 2021 (Caitlin Doornbos / Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – The five children of military wife Sylvia Lopez have special places in their home to hide when flashbacks of post-traumatic stress disorder from their injured Army veteran father get too violent and overwhelming, he said. she said Wednesday at an event at the White House in honor of the caring children of injured veteran parents.

Lopez’s children each play a role in caring for their father, whose service also left him with chronic skin problems and traumatic brain injuries, she said. Her eldest takes her to his doctor’s appointments and her younger son “knows the secret” to treating his father’s wounds.

“They have to struggle socially because I can’t leave my husband and he can’t go to birthday parties, malls or crowded theaters,” Lopez said. “As a mother, I often feel guilty and helpless… I can’t give them the attention they need because I also have a husband whose life depends on my care.

Lopez and several others in the White House spoke to First Lady Jill Biden, former Senator Elizabeth Dole and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin about the hardships facing the families of injured veterans. On the same day as the event, a new report was released which found that children caring for injured veterans face serious mental health issues.

About 2.3 million children care for injured veteran parents in the United States, and they are more likely to “experience isolation and have fewer opportunities to interact with their peers and develop friendships.” Than their non-helper peers, according to the report. He also revealed that they “have difficulty expressing their emotions and learning in school” and are faced with “stress, exhaustion and fatigue”.

The “Hidden Helpers at the Frontlines of Caregiving” report was commissioned by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and sponsored by the Wounded Warrior Project, which, together with the White House’s “Joining Forces” initiative, works to support the military, the former combatants and their families.

Gabby Rodriguez, 9, touches the shoulder of her six-year-old sister Ava as she talks about their experiences as the children of an injured veteran at an event honoring child caregivers in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday, November 10, 2021.
Gabby Rodriguez, 9, touches the shoulder of her six-year-old sister Ava as she talks about their experiences as the children of an injured veteran at an event honoring child caregivers in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday, November 10, 2021 (Caitlin Doornbos / Stars and Stripes)

Gabby Rodriguez, 9, also shared her story at an event to help care for her father, a former Marine Corps Fleet member. He returned from a deployment to Iraq with hearing loss, head trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder after surviving two IED blasts.

She talked about the fear she feels when her dad has seizures and how her six year old sister asks her dad “how is the weather today, what’s the code to ask her about her mood” .

“There are so many children who feel lonely because they think they are the only ones with wounded warrior parents and caregivers,” Rodriguez said. “So I want all the other caregivers to know that there are millions of us. You’re not alone.”

While the report found that babysitters like Gabby are at increased risk for mental health issues, it also found that they often exhibit a high level of empathy and “greater sense of community support ”.

“A caring mother told me that she sees her young child caring deeply for people in ways that her peers don’t see,” an anonymous researcher said in the report. “He wants to help strangers who have a hard time reaching for something in the grocery store, and she doesn’t see other kids his age doing that.”

Children can cope better with the stress of caring for injured parents if they are supported in their own appropriate development, although the study found that children’s lives are often rather ‘consumed by caregiving needs. which inhibits or accelerates their development ”.

“From a young age, hidden helpers learn the costs of war,” said Biden, whose late son-in-law Beau served in the Delaware Army National Guard. “[They] see how difficult the road to recovery can be. [They] know the reality of dressing changes and long stays in hospital rooms. [They] gets tired of having to be brave.

This is why Biden said on Wednesday that the report underscores the need to support the children and families of injured veterans by developing programs and information campaigns that address their struggles.

“We know that sometimes you need a break and you need to be around kids and teachers who understand what you’re going through without needing to explain,” Biden, a longtime educator, told the babysitters during the event.

The study also found that caregivers could benefit from counseling and support programs, but many do not see themselves as facing more challenges than their peers. Additionally, some of the children interviewed for the study said they put their own needs aside because “caregiving may take precedence over home life.”

“This may cause some children to avoid seeking help or not prioritizing their own needs because of the needs of their care recipients,” according to the report. “Children in military nursing homes have often explained how they prioritize the health and well-being of their care recipient over their own. “

An anonymous parent in the report said the child “was doing everything she could to make my life easier”, but the parent felt “sad that she didn’t have the same childhood experience” as her peers.

“She’s thinking about things she shouldn’t have to like about doctors, anger issues, why our house is so different from others,” the parent said in the report. “She didn’t turn out to be the child I wish she was sometimes.”

The report made four key recommendations to help better meet the needs of military child caregivers: develop intervention programs focused on peer support and mental health, invest in organizations that help military families, and raise awareness of needs of caregivers – not just those of injured veterans and partners of federal agencies and private organizations to reduce barriers to health care.

To help, Wounded Warrior Project CEO Mike Linnington announced at the event that his organization has created a new $ 1.5 million fund to support caregivers.

“With this investment, we will partner with [Hidden Helpers] members of the coalition to ensure that a network of resources, care, programs and services are available and easily accessible, ”he said.

Biden encouraged all Americans to support military families in their own way.

“While we cannot protect our nursing children from the reality of war or its consequences, we can recognize the costs that last long after our troops return and the injuries can be felt across generations,” he said. she declared.

portrait of the author

Caitlin doornbos

Caitlin Doornbos covers the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes after covering the Navy’s 7th Fleet as Stripes’ Indo-Pacific correspondent at Naval Base Yokosuka, Japan. Previously, she worked as a criminal reporter in Lawrence, Kan., And Orlando, Florida, where she was part of the Orlando Sentinel team that was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Caitlin holds a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from the University of Kansas and a Masters in Defense and Strategic Studies from the University of Texas at El Paso.




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