As Soldiers Return, Who Is Caring For The Caregivers?

Over a million Americans are caregivers to returning veterans, and in many cases, they're doing so with little government support. As a major report finds, this is having some serious consequences.

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We've heard a lot in the last few years about caring for returning veterans. We don't hear so much about the people who take care of them. A major study released today says more than a million Americans - mostly spouses and parents - are military caregivers. They get by without much government support, and they're suffering some serious consequences. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Virginia Peacock's husband, Dave, was a combat flight medic in Afghanistan. A few years ago, he hit his head during a hard landing of a medevac chopper. Shortly after, he showed symptoms of brain injury and PTSD.

VIRGINIA PEACOCK: He went from a really caring, mild-mannered guy to somebody who was raging all the time.

LAWRENCE: Peacock says it took a while but eventually, there was support available - for him. But she was working full-time raising their son, taking care of her husband. It wore her down, way down. She went to a support group for other military caregivers.

PEACOCK: I said, I'm currently having suicidal thoughts, and it's something that I'm dealing with. And I was looking down at the floor crying, talking about it and I look up, and almost everybody is crying, nodding their head.

RAJEEV RAMCHAND: We know that caregiving exacts a toll on these spouses and these families.

LAWRENCE: Rajeev Ramchand helped run a study by the RAND Corp. that documents the burden on these caregivers.

RAMCHAND: We found that nearly 40 percent of caregivers to somebody who served post-9/11 met criteria for depression. This is four times the national average.

LAWRENCE: One-point-one million Americans are taking care of a post-9/11 veteran, and over half that number are doing it alone - people like Virginia Peacock. A quarter of the caregivers are parents; a third are married to their wounded veteran. Terri Tanielian, the other leader of the study, says they're taking a one-two punch to their health and their pocketbook.

TERRI TANIELIAN: Post-9/11 caregivers have to make work-related adjustments, and this can result in absenteeism.

LAWRENCE: She says they lose about four days a month in wages. Those are hours spent taking care of veterans, which ends up saving the government about $3 billion a year. The study found 30 percent of these caregivers have no health care, and they're more likely to have general health problems. These veterans are young. Rajeev Ramchand says their families will have to take care of them for decades.

RAMCHAND: For the parents, we obviously worry about aging. What happens when they can no longer care for their sons or daughters, or when they need caregiving support themselves?

LAWRENCE: The study, commissioned by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, urges that more programs help caregivers, not just veterans.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

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