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Report urges additional resources for caregivers of wounded military veterans

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CANTON - Emily J. Ball had been dating her future husband, Cpl. Jessie Fletcher, for about nine months when he was injured in an improvised explosive device attack on Oct. 17, 2011, in Afghanistan. He lost both his legs, several fingers and hearing in one of his ears.

In the months that followed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., she helped with his care, feeding him until he could use his hands, changing bandages daily and administering shots.

She saw other significant others and parents in similar situations.

“We basically become nurses without the degrees,” Ms. Ball said.

While helping with her then-boyfriend’s care, Ms. Ball also juggled work responsibilities, giving up one part-time job and switching from full-time to part-time at another.

The challenges faced by caregivers like Ms. Ball are the focus of a new study from the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and the RAND Corp.: “Hidden Heroes: America’s Military Caregivers,” which was released on March 31.

The report found that about 5.5 million of the estimated 22.6 million caregivers in America are caring for veterans, with 1.1 million caring for post-9/11 veterans. The study found the caregivers of post-9/11 veterans differ from their counterparts in that they are more likely to care for someone with a mental health issue, hold a job and not be able to connect with a local support group.

The report found that caregivers of post-9/11 veterans save taxpayers about $3 billion through their work. About 12 percent of those caregivers spend more than 40 hours a week caring for their service member; for people who care for veterans of earlier wars, only 10 percent hit that mark. That means caregivers of post-9/11 veterans miss more work days than caregivers of veterans from other eras, and experience greater overall financial strain.

“These caregivers pay a price for their devotion,” said Rajeev Ramchand, the study’s co-leader.

The risk of depression is four times greater for caregivers of post-9/11 veterans than for those who care for veterans from other eras, and about 30 percent of caregivers lack health care coverage of their own.

Among the recommendations from researchers to help those caregivers are providing additional skills training, respite care and health services, along with resources for them to make future financial and legal plans.

Cpl. Fletcher, who served in the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, graduated from Indian River High School, Philadelphia, in 2008. Since the 2011 incident, his condition has improved rapidly, and he was able to leave the hospital ahead of schedule in December 2012. He and Ms. Ball now live in North Carolina, where they both are taking college classes. They married in November.

Among the advice Ms. Ball gives to other caregivers in similar situations is to learn as much as possible about the military service of the person they’re caring for, and about benefits available through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“If you’re not familiar with it, get familiar with it,” she said.

Another important part of caregiving is seeking out local groups and nonprofits that can help in providing medical or financial support.

One option for caregivers of injured post-9/11 veterans in northern New York is the Caregiver Support Program provided through the VA in Syracuse.

The program allows eligible caregivers to get a stipend, health insurance, mental health counseling and respite care. It currently supports 105 caregivers, mostly families of Fort Drum soldiers.

“There’s recognition from the VA that by providing care for the caregivers, we see better care for the veteran,” said Cheryl M. Cox, caregiver support coordinator at the Syracuse VA Medical Center.

She said many caregivers face the stress of juggling the needs of the veteran they care for, along with those of their children, with trying to continue their education or professional careers.

Ms. Cox said the regional program is growing, getting about nine new applications per month. For more information about the program, call Ms. Cox at 425-4682.

More information about the study can be found at http://wdt.me/v49xxv.

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