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‘You all have given so much’: Stars align for Elizabeth Dole Foundation event honoring military caregivers

By Mark Wineka
mark.wineka@salisburypost.com

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Former First Lady Michelle Obama wanted the 5.5 million Americans identified as military caregivers to know one thing.

“My message to you is this: We see you, and that’s just the wonderful, beautiful truth,” Obama said at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s second annual Heroes and History Makers event held Wednesday evening at The Anthem.

It was a night that included Obama, performers Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, “Today” co-host Savannah Guthrie and Sens. Elizabeth and Bob Dole.

But the real stars at the reception and dinner were the spouses, parents, other family members and friends who care at home for America’s wounded, sick or injured military personnel and veterans.

“I am so in awe of each and every caregiver I’ve met,” said Obama, who received the foundation’s first Tom Hanks Hidden Heroes Champion Award for her help in bringing early national attention to these often overlooked caregivers, the support of whom has become the mission of Elizabeth Dole and her foundation.

“The choice was obvious and immediate,” said Hanks, who presented the award to Obama. He serves as chairman of the foundation’s Hidden Heroes Campaign.

Hanks credited the Elizabeth Dole Foundation for uncovering in 2014 a hidden crisis — millions of under-supported and under-appreciated military caregivers who are likely to be your neighbors, living, shopping and working in virtually every community in the country.

“Senator Dole saw them and sounded the alarm,” Hanks said. And within 10 days, the Salisbury, N.C., native and 70 military caregivers were in the East Room of the White House meeting with and sharing their stories with Michelle Obama.

Obama recognized the caregivers for being among the most unsung heroes in the country, Hanks said, and the national media also took note. She made caregivers’ support part of the “Joining Forces” efforts she had established with Joy Biden, wife of then-Vice President Joe Biden.

“You just want people to know you exist,” Obama said during her remarks to the nearly 1,000 people attending the fund-raising dinner. “… What I’ve tried to do is show you I see you, and my husband sees you. You are the ones who kept us going.”

Obama told caregivers in the audience — Dole Foundation Caregiver Fellows from 50 states were gathered in Washington this past week — that one of the greatest privileges of her life was meeting them.

They changed her forever, Obama said, and changed the way she viewed service, wars, and the entire country.

“You all have given so much,” she said. “My hope was to give something back.”

In 2011 while the Doles were meeting a group at the World War II Memorial, Elizabeth Dole realized Bob was having a serious health issue. It led to his hospitalization at Walter Reed hospital for 11 months, and during that time the Doles met the family caregivers of many other military personnel and veterans.

“We got to know them very well,” Dole said, and they also realized that when these family members returned home with their veterans, they were not trained as caregivers and not supported in that role.

Dole said the couple felt as though they were given a mission. She asked the Rand Corp. to do a two-year study, and it revealed an estimated 5.5 million military caregivers in the country representing a $14 billion-a-year unpaid workforce.

It led to her establishment of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, and the early enlistment of Obama’s help.

“We in this room are in the business of providing hope,” Dole said. “… The need for our work is critical and urgent.”

Dole said everyone has dreams of a future for themselves and their loved ones — and those dreams often are part of defining who they are. But hopes and dreams often disappear for military caregivers.

It’s a job that can be filled with back-breaking work, sleepless nights, worry and heartache, stretching out for decades, Dole said. “What does it do to one’s soul, the loss of what could have been?” she asked.

The foundation works to help in repairing caregivers’ souls and renewing their faith and hope through support.

“Cynicism has a grip on our nation,” Dole said, describing a country full of bitterness and doubt and the sentiment that “these people will never work with those people.”

“Everyone stays at home and tweets about problems,” Dole said. “No one is trying to solve them.”

Dole suggested her foundation is not paying attention to that.

“Opening our hearts to others, overcoming superficial differences that divide us, this has always been how our nation has solved its biggest challenges. … Together we can restore our caregivers’ hope, renew their faith and once again make it possible for them to dream.”

Obama did not let Dole’s sentiment of unity go unnoticed.

“I am humbled,” Obama said of receiving the first-ever Hanks Award, “but I am proud to be here in this place and grateful for words of unity from Senator Dole, when we all have to remember we’re working for the same goals for the same country.”

Obama said she, like most Americans, had no idea what the life of a military family was like before her husband’s first run for president. During his initial campaign, she sat down with military spouses.

“You better believe their stories blew me away,” Obama said.

Guthrie, the “Today” co-host and emcee for the event, said “courage is the word I associate most with these caregivers.” She added she admired the honesty they bring to their tasks and how they deal with devastation, heartbreak, loneliness and feelings of helplessness.

“If I could even muster a fraction of their strength,” Guthrie said.

Colleen Johnson, one of the Caregiver Fellows, said her fellow caregivers are tender and fierce, soft and strong, fragile and courageous — “sometimes all in the same day.”

“But the one thing we are not is super-human,” said Johnson, who cares for her husband, a National Guardsman who returned from Afghanistan in 2014 “a completely different man.”

Caregivers eventually realize their jobs are too overwhelming, exhausting and demanding “to do it all on our own,” Johnson said.

“That’s when we turn to the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and the Hidden Heroes community,” she said.

•••

Some Rowan Countians, who were in Washington as part of the local Chamber of Commerce’s visit to lawmakers, were able to attend the Heroes and History Makers event.

Salisbury attorney Bill Graham was among the “top sponsors” for the evening, whose presenting sponsor was USAA.

By chance, the Rowan County group met Jennifer Nelson, a 2005 Catawba College graduate who lives in Florida. She is a military caregiver for her husband, retired Air Force Capt. Nathan Nelson, paralyzed from a rocket blast during his third tour in Afghanistan.

Nelson was six months pregnant with their daughter at the time.

Nathan went through dozens of surgeries and two years of rehabilitation therapy. He has no movement from the chest down and limited use of his hands, but he has found work as director of military affairs for U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.

Jennifer, who has written the book “Divine Soldier: His Sacrifice, Her Strength” about their journey together, said they have “a very, very beautiful life,” and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation means a lot to caregivers like her.

“It gives a voice to maybe those who don’t have the same hope,” she said, considering herself one of the lucky ones.

As a Caregiver Fellow, Jennifer was rooming during the week with Jennifer Olson of Oregon. The two have become close friends through the foundation.

“It’s getting the message out about what we deal with every day,” said Olson, whose husband, Tracy, copes with post-traumatic stress disorder. “His wounds are on the inside.”

•••

The evening included a surprise: Linda Hope, daughter of famed entertainer Bob Hope, announced a gift to the foundation of $1 million from the Bob and Dolores Hope Foundation.

The late Bob Hope was especially known for his devotion to entertaining American troops.

The event also presented Congressional Caregiver Advocate Awards to U.S. Sen Patty Murray of Washington and U.S. Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee. It recognized their efforts on Capitol Hill on behalf of military caregivers.

“Caring for our wounded warriors cannot be a one-person assignment,” Murray said.

Roe said in all of his years in Washington, he has asked for only one autograph, that of Bob Dole.

“These caregivers in this room are my heroes,” he added, leaving the podium by saluting the crowd.

Rita Wilson, Hanks’ wife, provided the evening’s entertainment by singing four of her original songs.

Hanks also announced that the Foundation’s Caregiver Champion campaign will provide contributors a “Caring Tag,” which is a different kind of version of a military dog tag that includes the personal story of a military caregiver.

Bob Dole, who watched the awards program from a table near the front, stressed that his wife does everything for her foundation as a volunteer.

Throughout the evening, Hanks referred to Elizabeth Dole variously as the “Velvet Hurricane,” the “Velvet Thunderstorm” and, during a press briefing when he said he hoped the caregiver awareness could be more of a grass-roots movement, the “Velvet Tornado.”

Dole said more communities could become “Hidden Heroes” cities and counties, adding to the 142 now in place.

The Doles together were considered the evening’s hosts.

“These two are tireless,” Michelle Obama said, “and they show us what service is all about.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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