TAKING CARE OF OUR WOUNDED SOLDIERS
- 2009/11/12 01:45:07
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Families, Caregivers Bear the Biggest Burden
This Veterans Day, as we honor those who defend our country, our thoughts are with the injured overseas and here, at Fort Hood. While the facts are still developing, this tragedy exposes the true toll of war's hidden injuries -- not only on our nation's service members, but on the families and caregivers who tend to them.
Today, most troops wounded in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are surviving their injuries. They fought our country's battles. Now they fight their own. According to the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, 320,000 have sustained traumatic brain injuries, and nearly 20 percent will report symptoms of PTSD or major depression.
Exposed for prolonged periods to trauma and stress, many face intense cognitive and psychological issues. The financial cost of addressing these issues is worrisome. RAND estimates the one-year cost of moderate TBI at more than $250,000 per case and the total cost to society at more than $4 billion. Our nation's ability to treat these conditions is still inadequate. While the US Department of Veterans Affairs has taken significant steps under General Shinsecki to address stigma and remove barriers to care, there are still gaps. A recent study showed that 57 percent of those reporting a probable TBI had not been evaluated by a physician, and only half seeking treatment for PTSD or depression received minimally adequate care. The Fort Hood tragedy reveals the strains in our healthcare system, particularly the shortages and stigma associated with reporting and treating psychological wounds.
The larger costs our nation and its families will be forced to carry are also troubling. Like physical injuries, hidden ones can affect the economic livelihood, quality of life and family relationships of service members just as they are trying to regain their footing. Financial needs during recovery often exceed what the government currently can provide, forcing healthy family members to give up their jobs to serve as primary caregiver. Many are spouses who have no respite from these responsibilities, and no other means of income beyond their military benefits. Others are parents of military children, once empty nesters who are now primary caregivers not eligible for the same benefits. Economic conditions make efforts to assist military families even more urgent -- with the number of unemployed current veterans nearly equal to the entire US military strength serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even in a positive economic environment, military families -- especially the injured and those grappling with TBI or PTSD -- will need special opportunities to find jobs and establish economic security.
With the high cost of rehabilitation expenses and pressure on family income, a growing number of military families are severely rent burdened, 500,000 paying more than 50% of their income on rent. Financially strapped and emotionally fragile, those who suffer from trauma are at risk to experience psychological or behavioral issues or succumb to substance abuse. Others will join the ranks of our nation's homeless. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, one in three homeless have put on a uniform to defend our country. While thousands who served in Iraq already use the VA's homeless programs, many more will need supportive housing programs designed after The Jericho Project model to addresses the root causes of homelessness and the special needs of veterans.
America's service members, caregivers and families are hurting in other ways, too. The Fort Hood incident offers a glimpse into the special stresses of caregiving. While exceptional, this tragedy is shining a light in the dark corners -- where those who provide assistance to others who are traumatized can suffer silently, avoiding help because of shame or feelings of inadequacy. Even in ordinary circumstances, for our military families, the emotional weight of rehabilitation and transition make just staying together taxing. Spouses of those with hidden injuries often face their own grief and depression as they struggle to reunite their families after long separations. Children of parents with trauma have special needs for counseling, socialization and support that are not always easy for mainstream educators to address. More organizations like the Military Child Education Coalition, greater openness, and better training are needed for our counselors, community leaders and clergy to blanket military families with security and help them cope with these very real issues.
This isn't about politics, or about the war. It's about the warrior. The massacre at Fort Hood is a tragic reminder of the psychological wounds of war. It can also be a catalyst for change to help those who endure them. This Veterans Day, after we raise the flag, we must raise awareness about wars hidden injuries, and what's required for injured service members, families and caregivers to have safe and successful futures. The health and livelihood of our families, and our country, is at stake.
News anchor Bob Woodruff, the group's founder, was seriously injured by a roadside bomb while reporting in Iraq. He has returned to the air and covers a variety of issues from around the globe for ABC. A military family member, Rene Bardorf is Executive Director of The Bob Woodruff Foundation, which provides resources and support to injured service members, veterans and their families.
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