Stockton is a city reinventing itself. It is investing in its people, particularly those who have suffered without the basic resources needed to thrive. That’s why, during the city’s inaugural celebration of Veterans Week, the Stockton Mayor’s Office and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation are teaming to raise awareness and local support for a long-neglected population — the spouses, parents, and other loved ones caring for a wounded, ill or injured veteran at home.
Military and veteran caregivers are hidden heroes in America. The vast majority have no formal training on how to care for someone with physical or mental health issues. However, when their loved one was wounded in combat, or diagnosed with injuries or illnesses related to their service, they dedicated their lives to providing them care.
For many, caregiving is a 24-hour-a-day job. Service members are surviving increasingly severe and catastrophic wounds that make them wholly dependent on their caregivers for basic needs, including taking medications, performing at-home medical procedures, dressing, bathing and tending to personal hygiene.
Compared to civilian caregivers, military caregivers are more likely to care for someone also suffering from post-traumatic stress or a traumatic brain injury. Veterans with these invisible wounds often require help with basic daily functions such as cooking, cleaning, paying bills and taking care of the kids.
Experts estimate that military caregivers provide $14 billion worth of care services every year — a cost that otherwise would be paid by the nation. Unfortunately, the all-consuming responsibility of providing this care takes an enormous toll. Caregivers routinely experience elevated rates of isolation, depression, physical ailments, family strain, and financial and legal troubles. Anecdotally, many caregivers report struggles with alcoholism and suicidal ideations.
There are 5.5 million military caregivers in our nation, including many in Stockton. Kelly Hunsucker is one of them. Her husband, Josh, a former Army infantry officer, has suffered for years since returning from Iraq with injuries both visible and invisible. For years, Kelly, like many military caregivers, assisted Josh without any access to resources or support.
When Josh suffered a migraine attack, Kelly cared for him the entire day, while taking on all of the household and family duties. Kelly and Josh also have three young children. And she, like most caregivers who are parents, reports that the stresses in their household have begun to affect their kids. For example, they have become hyper-sensitive to times when “daddy has a bad headache.” Being constantly on edge can create anxiety among children in caregiving homes, which can lead to panic attacks, depression and trouble at school.
In July, Stockton committed to take action in support of military caregivers by signing on as a Hidden Heroes City with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. By joining this growing network of 123 cities across the country, Stockton is pledging to proactively identify military caregivers in the local community and match them with public, private, and nonprofit resources in the area.
As a first step, organizations able to offer support to local veterans and their caregivers have come together for Stockton’s Veterans Week activities. Kelly led many of these events herself, including a special screening of “Thank You for Your Service,” followed by a panel discussion led by Pulitzer Prize winning author David Finkel, who wrote the book that inspired the movie. You can find all of the Stockton Veterans Week events going on today at http://stocktonveteransweek.com. And if Kelly’s story sounds like your own, connect with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation at https://hiddenheroes.org
The Elizabeth Dole Foundation is awakening the nation to the military caregiver crisis. Stockton is a city on the rise, working to ensure that basic needs of overlooked and unrepresented groups like military caregivers are met, so they can reach their highest potential. Join us in this very special partnership that will hold Stockton up as a model community where the service and sacrifices of our hidden heroes are always supported and never forgotten.
Elizabeth Dole served as the U.S. Senate representative from North Carolina from 2003-2009. She has also served as Secretary of Transportation during the Reagan administration and Secretary of Labor during President George H.W. Bush's administration.
Michael Tubbs is the mayor of Stockton.