Hidden Heroes speakers and more than 60 Dole Caregiver fellows on stage with Senator Dole and Tom Hanks. Photo by Lisa Nipp.
Hidden Heroes speakers and more than 60 Dole Caregiver fellows on stage with Senator Dole and Tom Hanks. Photo courtesy of Hidden Heroes.

The images are well known – wounded service members with severe injuries, confined to beds or wheelchairs – no longer able to serve their country. They are often commended for their actions in combat, draped with military awards and medals, honored at veterans’ ceremonies.

But some images aren’t quite so visible. There are spouses, parents, siblings or friends providing care and comfort to these injured service members, often 24/7. Frequently overlooked, it is no wonder that these military caregivers – numbering 5.5 million – are considered hidden heroes.

Thanks to a coalition of businesses, nonprofits, and individuals who are creating awareness of this caregiver community, those hidden heroes are coming out of the shadows and making themselves known. With funding support from USAA and other major sponsors, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation launched its comprehensive military caregiver resource Tuesday at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. The website, www.hiddenheroes.org, is the first national caregiver registry and offers helpful resources and support for a community that has often been overlooked.

Dole, the former North Carolina senator, American Red Cross president, and secretary of transportation, established the foundation in 2012.

“Leading our nation’s response to military and veteran caregivers is part of a commitment that I made to myself more than four years ago when I first met the family members caring for wounded loved ones at Walter Reed,” Dole said. “The stories I heard, the acts of love and care that I witnessed compelled me to find a way to address the military caregiver crisis in America. I knew that if we could just come together as a nation, we would one day live in an America where military caregivers were empowered, appreciated, and recognized for their service to our nation.”

Dole said she doesn’t focus on her name being on the foundation.

“I simply want to be sure that I have done my part to help the (United States’) military caregivers,” she said. “And as we launch Hidden Heroes this month, I hope that we inspire every American to do their part, too.”

The website features a Q&A section where caregivers can post and receive answers to their questions. The caregiver biography section will feature highlighted resources that caregivers find most useful, along with links to those pages.

“We will use our social platforms to facilitate direct peer-to-peer exchanges, and when it comes to more serious or technical issues, we will provide resources such as the VA’s caregiver hotline and USAA’s financial advice hotline,” said Steve Schwab, Elizabeth Dole Foundation executive director. “It will definitely be a vibrant community and we hope it becomes an online destination caregivers will return to time and again.”

Before Tuesday’s website unveiling, military caregivers had no viable way of engaging on a national level, said USAA Corporate Responsibility Assistant Vice President Justin Schmitt. Many military caregivers, he added, don’t assign themselves that label. They think of themselves first as a spouse, a parent, or a sibling – as someone who cares about the service member and provides support. This made it difficult to reach out to them and make them aware of support that can improve their lives, Schmitt said.

Now they can get that help through the registry, through peer support, and by connecting with other military caregivers.

“That network is crucial,” Schmitt said. “For newer caregivers, all of a sudden life is dramatically different. To have a peer support network of other military caregivers and experienced caregivers who know how to navigate the VA, who know how to adapt to a different life, who have experience in how to keep the marriage intact and keep a sense of normalcy for children – these are things we can really take for granted in the civilian world. They can be so complex once you’re thrust into that.”

Through the website, Schmitt said, caregivers will have the opportunity to raise their hands, be counted, and give themselves access to a community of peers and professional caregivers. They’ll learn about local and national programs and services that can provide support when and where they need it.

“We have a ton of respect for Senator Dole and the work that they’re doing to elevate opportunities to support caregivers at a national level,” Schmitt said.

(from left): Tom Hanks and Sen. Elizabeth Dole with Harriett Dominique and Justin Schmitt from USAA. Photo by Lisa Nipp.
(from left): Tom Hanks and Sen. Elizabeth Dole with Harriett Dominique and Justin Schmitt from USAA. Photo by Lisa Nipp.

USAA became more involved in supporting military caregivers when it redefined its corporate philanthropy approach back in 2014. USAA Senior Vice President of Corporate Responsibility and Community Affairs Harriet Dominique said that supporting military caregivers was part of USAA’s targeted approach to making a measurable impact.

“We hope to lead and inspire others through education and knowledge,” Dominique said. “We do this, not to highlight USAA, but to make a difference, and by sharing the priority and inspiring others to join along with us.”

Schmitt said that the Elizabeth Dole Foundation conducted a RAND research study on military caregivers – the first comprehensive study that looked at this community.

“The report was called Hidden Heroes, because when people think about injured service members, I think the imagery that typically comes to mind is of the injured service members themselves,”  Schmitt said. “But the military community extends to their support system and military spouses and families are a big part of that.

“The RAND study was so helpful because it helped us appreciate the size of the audience – there’s 5.5 million caregivers in this country, including 1.1 million just since 9/11,” Schmitt added. “It helped us realize that they have a disproportionate amount of hardship when it comes to financial strain and emotional stress, marital challenges, financial challenges, emotional stability challenges, because in many cases the service member can’t work or doesn’t work regularly. And the caregiver is providing support, so their ability to work full time can be compromised.”

The RAND study also pointed out that the demographics of the military caregiver community are substantially different than their civilian counterparts.

“In the civilian community, caregivers typically care for an aging parent, typically in their 70s or 80s, and that caregiving period of time is often shorter – a decade or less,” Schmitt said. “But most military caregivers, particularly after 9/11, are in their 20s and 30s, and that caregiving time period can be 50 or 60 years. It can be further complicated toward the end of their lives when they need caregiving systems and they’re still a caregiver of an injured service member.”

Schmitt said that the Elizabeth Dole Foundation is considered the leading force behind putting needs of military caregivers on the map on a national level.

“They told us that we’re the only company they’re aware of that has support for military caregivers as a pillar in their corporate responsibility strategy,” he said. “We’re grateful that we can help raise awareness so that companies and entities can recognize that and know they have the ability to do something about it. They can contribute in a meaningful and positive way to the lives of people who are caring for injured service members in our country.”

Dominique explained that USAA focused on finding alliances with nonprofits that have demonstrated success with caregivers as their priority. In addition to the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, USAA is funding the programs of two other nonprofit organizations this year: PsychArmor Institute and Operation Homefront.

PsychArmor Institute offers a free, high-quality online caregiver education program – the first of its kind. The organization has a unique perspective – it is focused on non-veterans helping veterans. When its chief executive officer and founder, Marjorie Morrison, was working with Marines in California, she quickly realized that there was a significant gap in her knowledge about military culture and the unique challenges veterans face when they transition to the civilian sector.

She also came to understand that she was not alone in her lack of familiarity with many aspects of the military environment.

“With less than 1% of our country serving in uniform, we are currently faced with a significant civilian-military divide,” said PsychArmor Chief Operating Officer Retired Navy Capt. Tom Criger. “In this context, rates of veteran suicide, untreated PTSD, substance use, and homelessness continue to rise. When people are struggling, it is often those around them who are the first to recognize that something is not right. Before PsychArmor was established, those friends, families, neighbors, and co-workers had no place to go for support on how to effectively support a veteran. PsychArmor Institute was founded to bridge that gap and help every American serve those who served.”

Criger said PsychArmor was fortunate to have USAA as the founding sponsor for the School for Military and Veteran Caregivers and Families.

“Without USAA’s support, we would not have been able to create this wide array of quality training for those who care for and support our veterans,” Criger said. “In creating the training courseware, PsychArmor leverages an extensive network of nationally recognized subject matter experts to create course content, which then the very talented development team transforms into highly engaging, entertaining, and interactive online training.”

For the caregiver series, Criger said PsychArmor were able to obtain course content from in-house clinical psychologists, nationally recognized experts of veteran mental health care, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Criger said PsychArmor’s partnerships have been instrumental to its success in producing and disseminating quality online training.

“Currently, we have a wide variety of additional courses in development that will assist caregivers and families,” he said. “These new courses run the gamut from how to navigate the VA system, how to be a mental healthcare advocate and how to talk to your children about post-yraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, to name a few.”

While the School for Military and Veteran Caregivers and Families is on a robust growth trajectory, he added, there continues to be a significant gap in providing the education and tools that caregivers and family members need to better support veterans. Additional courseware has been created in four separate schools – for employers, healthcare providers, volunteers, and educators.

“PsychArmor has made tremendous strides in addressing these educational and support gaps not only through online training courses but also a ‘Helping You Help Veterans’ call center,” Criger said. “This call center is staffed by master’s-level social workers and clinicians who are available to answer questions and respond to needs of those supporting our veterans.”

The call center can be reached at 844-779-2427.

The third nonprofit supported through USAA is Operation Homefront, based in San Antonio. Its Hearts of Valor program is a network of approximately 3,000 military caregivers, who receive support from Operation Homefront’s team of approximately 100 staff members. Hearts of Valor Director Sara Boz strives to help build strong, stable, and secure military families.

“The issues I see among a population of younger caregivers fluctuate from employment and childcare to infertility and marital concerns,” Boz said. “Many of the caregivers have 80 or more years of caregiving in front of them and they are trying to prepare for what that entails. Others feel very overwhelmed because they are raising small children along with being a caregiver.”

Boz leads high-touch, high-impact caregiver retreats. She’s led about 15 of them, and USAA provided funding for a local three-day caregiver retreat for about 50 participants. The retreats provide respite and programs focused on knowledge and resources for caregivers.

“If I had a magic wand I would host a retreat every weekend and every caregiver in our program would have an opportunity for respite and wellness,” Boz said. “My greatest joy is spending time with the caregivers. I recently had the opportunity to spend a day with 12 caregivers in a beautiful, worry-free environment. We talked, laughed, cried, and just had the most amazing time together. They are incredible, strong, funny, and just amazing women. They deserve our support and they deserve help and attention. Of all the jobs out there, caregiving is one of the hardest.”

Boz admitted her greatest challenge is not always having the answer to a problem.

“I try to stay up-to-date on resources, issues, and current events, but there is still so much I don’t know.  I also wish there were endless resources, so I could help all caregivers,” she said.

Schmitt emphasized USAA’s role in supporting military caregivers as more than just monetary.

“We’re really honored to work with nonprofits that do this work. We’re their thought partner. We can work with them on strategy, not just funding,” he said. “We’re helping them think through the opportunity, think through the metrics, and (look) at other skills we have at USAA that  nonprofits can benefit from to make their program and their mission more effective.

“It’s one thing to care about caregivers and to recognize their plight. It’s another thing to develop tools and resources that can make a difference in their lives,” Schmitt continued. “It’s not something we’re doing for cosmetic effect. It’s something we’re doing with a sincere intent to improve their station in life and do it in a way that matters to them.”


Top image: Hidden Heroes speakers and more than 60 Dole Caregiver fellows on stage with Senator Dole and Tom Hanks.  Photo by Lisa Nipp. 

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Annette Crawford is an Air Force veteran and has spent more than 30 years as a writer, editor, and public affairs officer. She is the house photographer at Sam’s Burger Joint & Music Hall.