Veteran Caregivers Struggle to Stay Afloat

"We're seeing complex injuries -- individuals who simply would not have survived previous conflicts, and this has placed an enormous load on families," says U.S. Army Brigadier Gen. Loree Sutton, director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury in Arlington, Va.

Sutton, the Army's highest-ranking psychiatrist, points out that groups such as Cohoon's are trying to turn caregiver legislation -- two bills are now being debated in the House and Senate -- into a law that would give those like Leslie Kammerdiener financial support, including health insurance.

Kammerdiener, who has a degenerative nerve disease, no longer has health insurance, and she relies on donations.

Losses All Around

Ed and Beth Edmundson's son Eric, 29, headed to Iraq healthy and strong in August 2005 and returned in October with a severe brain injury after a bomb exploded near him. He is unable to walk and is cognitively impaired.

Before the injury, both parents had good jobs and retirement savings, but they moved to New Bern, N.C., to live with Eric, his young wife, Stephanie, and their baby, Gracie. They've run through their savings and can't afford health insurance.

"Eric needs help with every aspect of survival," his father says. "It was a loss all around for everybody. A loss of income, retirement, time together."

Financial losses aren't all caregivers rack up. Social lives and relationships change or go away.

"My relationship with my wife today is different than it was four years ago," Ed says. "The weekend before Eric was injured, Beth and I were living in our own home, involved in sea turtle rescues, walking on the beach, and everything's hunky-dory. And the next weekend, your world is caved in."

Their health has been affected by the stress as well. Last fall, Ed couldn't afford to visit the doctor when a chest cold turned into pneumonia. The non-profit group Wounded Warrior Project stepped up with a donation that paid for antibiotics, breathing treatments and steroids.

Recently, an extra strain hit their finely tuned family routine when Beth, who does the bulk of the cooking, cleaning and hygiene for Eric, broke her ankle while playing with Eric's now-5-year-old daughter. Her medical bill topped $46,000.

"Beth and I aren't moving forward. We're a foot forward and a foot back," he says.

Sutton says the military has increased its support resources for families and has more on the way. "There has been a steady crescendo of efforts in recognition for the need to build family resilience," she says.

She points to a family assistance program and a 24-hour hotline. She says the Defense Department plans this spring to release a "caregiver's curriculum," a guide for caregivers and medical staff treating wounded veterans and their families.

Gap In Understanding

Kammerdiener has been disappointed by the military support and says the programs have done nothing for her physical and mental health needs.

Cohoon says many caregivers don't know about federal recovery coordinators, who can help caregivers make sense of the military's medical resources. "They're not letting them even know they exist," Cohoon says.

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