‘My heart was drawn to this’
SALISBURY — Several years ago when her husband, Bob, was dealing with several health issues and found himself at Walter Reed National Military Center for 11 months, Elizabeth Dole was visiting him almost every day.
Going through the hospital wards, she couldn’t help but notice wives of wounded warriors sleeping on the floor or mothers and fathers wrapped up in blankets beside their injured loved ones.
The more she visited, the more she saw first-hand the strain on the family members. She realized, too, how the burden of caring for the seriously disabled patients would shift completely to them once the warriors were discharged and sent home.
“My heart was being drawn to this,” Dole said.
Fast forward to today and the work of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation: Caring for Military Families.
Dole’s foundation has led the effort to create a national coalition called “Hidden Heroes,” which brings together business, government, nonprofits, labor and faith groups to support an identified 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers, especially by filling the gaps in services and support.
When the Hidden Heroes national coalition was launched April 11, Dole joined First Lady Michelle Obama, Dr. Jill Biden and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter to outline commitments in things such as job opportunities to caregiver mentoring and training.
Spending the weekend in her native Salisbury, Dole spoke Saturday of meeting with caregivers whose days are consumed by bathing, feeding, dressing, giving medications and injections and performing therapy.
They might have to protect their wounded loved ones from emotional triggers associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Sounds as innocent as a car’s backfiring might be a trigger, so some families seek to live in remote areas and find themselves even more isolated.
Young wives and husbands, caring for their spouses 24/7, often find themselves doing it alone, untrained as caregivers, while raising children.
They also have to navigate complicated healthcare systems and deal with financial and legal questions. Dole said many caregivers themselves deal with depression and weakened immune systems from stress and being overworked.
She describes these caregivers as patriots. Dole met one caregiver father who had to give his injured son 100 pills and flip him over in bed at least six times a day.
“It’s like an intensive care unit in their living room,” she said.
Dole’s efforts have led to the introduction of the Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act in both the U.S. House and Senate, formation of the bipartisan Hidden Heroes Congressional Caucus for Military Caregivers, an extensive RAND research study on caregivers, a network of 400 pastors led by evangelist Joel Osteen, a major U.S. Chamber of Commerce summit scheduled for Oct. 30 and five foundation grants to existing organizations for innovative programs resulting from the RAND study.
The key word, Dole said, has to be “innovative.”
One of the grants is going toward establishing a peer-mentoring program across a dozen different organizations. Another,awarded to Public Counsel, is giving free legal services to military families with the most financial challenges.
The Chamber already has held a jobs fair and workplace education program, and part of the summit’s initiative Oct. 30 will challenge businesses to adopt workplace friendly policies and flexible employment practices which support military caregivers.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain are among the co-chairs of the congressional caucus, reflecting how bipartisan the effort is.
In late April, Dole participated in a nationally televised service with Osteen, who “was just swept away with this,” she said.
“As Bob (her husband, Bob Dole) says,” Elizabeth Dole added, “it just mushroomed. You start out with your heart being pulled, and as you tell people about it, they want to get involved.”
One offshoot of the Dole Foundation has been her establishment of a Foundation Fellows program for people such as Sarah Verardo of Charlotte, who are active caregivers.
Dole now has at least one caregiver ambassador, advocate or advisor in each of the 50 states.
“They’re very frank, because they’re advocates,” Dole said. “… I think the fellows are the heart of the foundation.”
All the fellows were flown to Washington, courtesy of American Airlines, to take part in the April 11 White House event. They then “stormed the hill” by going to meet their representatives and senators, Dole said.
“Once you leave active duty, it can be very isolating,” Verardo, 29, said on a visit to Dole’s Salisbury home Saturday afternoon. “I did feel very alone at first.”
Her husband, Mike, hurt his back four years ago when an improvised explosive device knocked him out of a turret during a patrol in Afghanistan.
Back on a foot patrol two weeks later, a second IED was even worse. Mike Verardo was burned over 40 percent of his body, He lost his left leg, and his left arm was reattached later. He had injuries to his face, and both eardrums were blown out, meaning he has only partial hearing today and must rely on hearing aids.
Verardo, who was nine months into his first deployment to Afghanistan and hoped to make the Army his career, spent three months at Walter Reed and two-and-a-half years at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, which specializes in burn cases.
After her husband’s long fight just to survive, he was medically retired. In medical parlance, Mike is more than 300 percent disabled given all his injuries.
The healthcare and financial support made available to the couple, who just welcomed baby Grace into their family two months ago, has been good, Sarah said. They can live on what’s provided.
Sarah said Mike still carries this nagging feeling that by being wounded, he didn’t complete his mission. “He feels like the Taliban got a win,” she said.
Sarah doesn’t work outside their home because Mike needs to have someone with him all the time. For a break, she depends on an outside caregiver once a week. If Sarah wasn’t a full-time caregiver, he would have to be in a nursing home.
The couple come to the Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury every other week, as Mike continues to deal with some non-healing wounds.
In March, Sarah tried to arrange for herself a 36-hour trip away from home by organizing a team of people to look after Mike, “but it still went horribly wrong,” she said.
While a wounded warrior is still in the military and being treated, there’s a sense of community and a built-in network of people looking after him or her.
“All of a sudden, one day, it ends,” Sarah said, adding that caregiving day in and day out takes its toll. “It’s mind-boggling what you’re dealing with.”
But every day is getting better as the couple get used to their “new normal.”
“We’re in our 20s,” Sarah said. “This is going to be our lives for decades and decades, hopefully. It’s nice to know others are walking through this with us.
“It’s been so uplifting to feel you’re not alone in this. It’s very humbling to have that kind of support.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.