Congress Considers Help For Families Of Injured Service Members

Military families around the country say they urgently need the government to give them a different kind of support. They need help taking care of relatives who were severely wounded in the wars — relatives who now are living at home. Host Scott Simon speaks with NPR's Daniel Zwerdling about how a recently discussed bill in Congress could help.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Military families around the country say that they urgently need the government to give them another kind of support. They need help taking care of relatives who've been severely wounded in the wars, relatives who are now living at home. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling joins us. Danny, help us understand this problem.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Imagine this nightmare: Your son or your daughter is badly wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan, and luckily they're alive. But when they get out of the hospital they need somebody to take care of them, maybe for months, maybe for years, or forever. You don't want to send them to a nursing home, probably, right? So you say, okay, I will take care of my loved one. But that basically means you, Scott, are going to have to give up your former life to be a 24-hour nurse.

SIMON: And the government does not provide assistance to families in that position?

ZWERDLING: It does, but the families say nowhere near enough. Now, the government gives the most help if the vet is totally incapacitated. For instance, I met a young man a couple of weeks ago near Tampa, Florida. Part of his head was blown off by a grenade. He can't walk, he can't talk. His mother has to change his diapers, do everything for him.

If your son is like that, then the VA will pay you roughly $100,000 a year. And if the vet or the guardian says it's okay, your family can use that money to hire help to take care of them.

SIMON: Does that cover everything?

ZWERDLING: Well, no. I called a home healthcare agency the other day. They said this would cover basically just care during the day, okay? So let's say you're the vet's father. Here's your choice: do you want to keep working at your usual job while some home healthcare aides take care of your son during the day? Okay, that's fine. But then you come home at night and you have to then become the overnight nurse - you'll be totally exhausted. Or do you want to take the $100,000 and use that to pay your family's bills, but then you will take care of your son yourself 24 hours a day?

SIMON: Which obviously doesn't sound like a very encouraging choice. You said that that's the most help the government gives?

ZWERDLING: Yeah, because I've talked to mothers and fathers and sisters and others whose family members came home from the war in one piece. They look normal, but they have severe PTSD or traumatic brain injury, or both, and their families say we cannot leave these people alone, even for a few minutes.

SIMON: Because it gets dangerous if they do?

ZWERDLING: You know, if you have TBI, you can be very forgetful. I mean, literally TBI victims turn on the stove and walk away and forget it's there. They could burn down the entire house. Now, veterans do not like to use this phrase in public, but they call these people walkie-talkies - they walk, they talk, but these vets can't function normally. But because they're not totally incapacitated, the VA gives them way less money. Indeed, these families are really, really hurting.

SIMON: Veterans' advocates, is what they suggest as simple as telling the government we need more money?

ZWERDLING: That's a start. They want Congress to pass a law that some people call the Family Caregivers Act. And under this law, the VA would actually pay family members to take care of wounded vets. It's sort of like a salary.

SIMON: Are there other features they'd like to see changed?

ZWERDLING: In addition, the law would pay for you to get training so that you would have, you know, you wouldn't be a nurse but you would know better how to take care of somebody who's seriously wounded. You could get counseling. They would actually pay for nursing aides to relieve you so you could go on a long vacation so you would not burn out.

SIMON: Congress has a lot on its plate already. What are the chances of legislation like this coming about in the next few months?

ZWERDLING: There's a big push for it and members on both sides say they support it, but there are some influential members of Congress who say, wait a minute, this is going to cost billions of dollars. You know, we're trying to cut the budget, not add to it. On the other hand, the supporters of the bill say, wait a minute, if we avoid putting a single vet in a nursing home, this could save the government money, 'cause, you know, it could cost, you know, $250,000 a year easily.

SIMON: Do we know how many families would be affected by this, are affected right now?

ZWERDLING: You want to hear the astonishing answer?

SIMON: Yeah.

ZWERDLING: The government does not now. Now, the VA says there are roughly seven or eight hundreds vets who are so incapacitated they need round-the-clock care by their families, but they have not counted the number of so-called walkie-talkies out there. So it could be in the thousands. They do not know.

SIMON: NPR's Daniel Zwerdling, thanks so much.

ZWERDLING: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: For more on our Impact of War series and to share your story, you can go to NPR.org/Soapbox. Next week, Soldiers Project, an organization that provides free counseling for service members and their families. Its founder, psychiatrist Judith Browder, came up with the idea after seeing a play about soldiers' combat experience.

Ms. JUDITH BROWDER (Founder, Soldiers Project): The most horrifying aspect of it was the sense that I got that these were really just ordinary everyday guys and they had seen things and done things that just shattered their whole sense of themselves.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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