In 1997, I contracted a rare bacterial infection during my service in the Coast Guard which resulted in the loss of my arms and legs as well as several of my internal organs. At the time, I felt my life was over and I couldn’t imagine finding purpose again.
I never could have dreamed that two decades later, the President of the United States would be shaking my hand - or hook, as it so happens - as I represented more than 1.3 million other seriously injured and ill veterans as the National Commander of DAV (Disabled American Veterans).
As a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, I am all too familiar with adrenaline-pumping experiences. Though quite a bit different than plunging from a helicopter into icy waters to perform an emergency rescue, shaking hands with the President of the United States was still a surreal, unforgettable moment in my life.
I was proud to represent DAV as President Trump recently authorized the creation of the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.
I was even more proud to have my wife, Yvonne, standing by my side.
As a quadruple amputee, a lot of people ask about and thank me for my service. No one ever stops to thank my wife for the decades of service she’s selflessly given as my caregiver.
Without Yvonne’s assistance, I’m not able to get out of bed on my own let alone travel to Washington, D.C. to shake hands with our Commander in Chief.
Yvonne and the millions of spouses, parents and other family caregivers who serve by taking care of seriously disabled veterans are truly America’s unsung heroes, deserving of recognition and support. Unfortunately, current policies restrict benefits through VA’s Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers only to veterans injured after September 11, 2001.
An arbitrary date makes veterans like me and caregivers like Yvonne ineligible for life-changing benefits like medical training, respite care, health and education benefits and financial support.
Yvonne is the first to recognize that post-9/11 veterans and caregivers are deserving of these benefits, but she will also tell you that caregiving does not get easier with age. These benefits would have helped ease the physical and emotional strains and the financial burdens she has faced over the past two decades, as is the case for many others whose lives would be greatly improved with this assistance.
There are currently three pieces of pending legislation that would, if enacted, expand those caregiver benefits to veterans of all eras. Bills like these have floated through many sessions of Congress without action, largely due to cost concerns. And it’s true, providing comprehensive caregiver support to all veterans who need it would incur a cost, but far less than what it costs to provide nursing home or other institutional care.
According to a VA report to Congress, the average cost per veteran per year in the comprehensive program is $36,770. To compare, VA annually spends $332,756 on average per veteran in a VA nursing home, $88,571 in a community nursing home and $45,085 in VA per diem payments in a State Veterans Home. Allowing veterans the choice to remain at home also enhances their quality of life, and it’s been shown that family caregivers reduce overall health care costs by minimizing medical complications and lowering the number of hospital admissions.
Clearly, expanding eligibility for these benefits to veterans of all eras isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.
Without comprehensive caregiver support, many family caregivers of severely disabled veterans are unable to continue their educations, careers or the lives they knew before. They never talk about the burdens and they don’t want sympathy, rather they stoically carry out their duties day after day. Many have been doing this for decades, unaided.
To sustain their efforts, they need the comprehensive supports like those provided in VA’s integrated caregiver support program.
When President Trump shook my hand, I hope it served as a reminder that we severely disabled veterans don’t do this alone. There is almost always a dedicated caregiver at our side inspiring us, motivating us and helping us achieve the best life possible. It’s time we thank and honor them properly by giving them the support they deserve.