The transition from active duty to veteran or retiree family can be as confusing as it is exciting. Through the Transition Tales series, MFAN’s Advisory Board combines personal experience with practical advice and resources to assist the whole family through this complex adjustment period.
The opinions in this column are the views of the author, Rachel Moyers.
Did you know that May is the month of Military Caregiver? It was first established in hopes of shining light on military caregivers, as they provide long-term care and support to service members. This month, I celebrate the 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers and am beyond grateful for their love and support not only of their care recipient but also their fellow caregivers. It’s important to remember that we as caregivers are not alone in this journey, and that there are people and resources available for support.
It’s not uncommon for military families to face a variety of challenges and transitioning out of the military is no different. Injury adds another layer of complexity, for both the service member and their families. Many families post-service have become familiar with the term of military and veteran caregiver, but…
What does this term mean and who can it be applied to?
A military caregiver is a non-professional individual that provides a range of care and assistance for a service member who has disabling wounds, injuries, or illnesses. These disabilities can be physical, mental, or both.
Who can be a caregiver?
Honestly, anyone and everyone can take on this role. Rosalynn Carter is quoted as saying, “There are only four kinds of people in the world — those that have been caregivers, those that are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.”
I am one of those 5.5 million military caregivers, along with fellow caregivers who are parents, spouses, adult children, siblings, and battle buddies, just to name a few. When my husband was transitioning out of the military, we navigated the medical retirement process. Throughout this process, I didn’t know of the term military caregiver, let alone identify as one.
The Military and Veteran Caregiver Network (MVCN) has a simple quiz to help others, like me, to identify as caregivers:
- Do you provide care for a service member or veteran who may need assistance due to wounds, illness, injury, or age-related condition?
- Do you help a service member or veteran who struggles with stress, emotional issues, anger, or depression?
- Do you contribute to the care of a service member or veteran by taking them to medical appointments, managing medication, or arranging any form of health care?
- Do you feel responsible to care for a service member or veteran because they are your spouse, child, friend, sibling, or other family member?
- Do you ever feel alone or isolated because no one around you does the same thing or seems to understand?
MVCN indicates that if you answer yes to any of these questions, you might be a military or veteran caregiver.
Why acknowledge this caregiving role during transition?
Transition can be isolating, overwhelming, and feelings of loss and identity can impact both the service member and their family. Taking a moment to reflect on the current situation and acknowledge where you could use support is an important part to tackling that overwhelm. Once my husband medically retired, I felt an emotion that I couldn’t quite put a name to; I was grieving the loss of our plans for 20 plus years, as a military family. I was grieving the new adventures, PCS, and collective family experiences. It was hard to connect with our active duty family because we were now approaching the other side of service. We were navigating appointments, new medications, new symptoms, and so much more.
A RAND study, commissioned by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation in 2014, focused on military caregivers and the need to support them. This study indicates that military caregivers have worse health outcomes, greater strains on family relationships, and more workplace problems than non-caregivers. Add transitioning out from a steady paycheck, housing, and community to the mix and many caregivers find themselves with compassion fatigue or even burnout.
I quickly learned that I needed a new community to join me on this journey. This community doesn’t replace our military family and community that we have built, just provides extra support for the specific situations we are now encountering. For me, the first step of support was peer support.
Through organizations like the Military and Veteran Caregiver Network (MVCN), Semper Fi & America’s Fund, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, and the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, I was able to attend peer support groups, find a space to be honest and vulnerable, and learn about specific resources that could help with educational classes, caregiver coaching, medical equipment, respite, or other needs that might arise. I was even able to explore my personal identity and purpose while finding a way to support my health and well-being, just like I do for my family.
Our society tends to define success as specific milestones in a career or education, financial stability, or other traditional measures. For us, part of that was 20 plus years in the military. However, since the medical board process and our transition out of active duty, we as a family have redefined success. We have found a new balance and know that a successful day looks a little different each day. My days tend to focus on my husband’s care, my work, the kiddos’ schedules, and the everyday activities such as housecleaning, cooking, or running errands.
Even though I try not to ignore my health and well-being, I tend to put my own health on the back burner. Last year, I was experiencing debilitating headaches for several months but kept pushing them aside, as part of my chronic migraines. Finally, I went to my doctor and discovered that I had a brain tumor. Of course, not what I wanted to add to our plate that was already full of VA appointments, medications, therapies, extracurriculars with our children, and not to mention my professional life. However, we navigated that obstacle with stress and humor, along with the support of my military caregiver community. They helped me change my perspective on taking care of me. They helped me navigate the crazy schedules and support that was still required for my husband. They helped me redefine success on the days that I felt inadequate.
This is why caregivers need a community behind them. Connecting with other caregivers can help reduce feelings of isolation and provide a source of support and understanding. As a caregiver, make sure to find time to engage in activities that bring you joy. This can be reading, gardening, exercising, or spending time with friends and family. Sometimes, we have learned that it is not always possible to get out of the house and have those in person connections. But if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it has spotlighted the ability to connect authentically in a virtual environment.
It’s important to know that you are not alone in your journey. During this time of transitioning out of service, there are resources available to support you and your family.
- American Red Cross Military and Veteran Caregiver Network (MVCN) provides a network and resources to military and veteran caregivers.
- Code of Support helps those in need navigate and access critical services by providing one-on-one support and connecting veterans and caregivers to people and resources.
- Elizabeth Dole Foundation seeks to support and honor our nation’s military caregivers by providing programs, resources, and support.
- Department of Veterans Affairs – Caregiver Support Program connects caregivers and their families to resources and support that will help them along their caregiving journey.
- Semper Fi & America’s Fund supports critically wounded, ill, and injured service members, veterans, and military families while providing financial assistance and tailored support to help with the expenses incurred during initial hospitalization and throughout recovery.
- Sesame Workshop provides resources for the whole family to use as they navigate life with a parent in need of care.
- Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers (Operation Family Caregiver) partnered with Wounded Warrior Project to launch Operation Caregiver Support (OCS), a virtual support group for post-9/11 military caregivers. OCS is designed to foster connections, cultivate new skills, and create a community of support.
- RAND Military Caregivers Study aims to quantify military caregivers’ needs and examine existing policies and programs for meeting them.