Colleen Rose is a fellow with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and an occupational therapist in Fairfax County, Virginia. She cares for her husband, John, a Marine who sustained severe injuries in an improvised explosive device blast during a 2010 deployment to Afghanistan.
What happens when you receive the phone call that you prayed you would never get? "Mrs. Rose, your husband has been wounded. We only have emerging details. He is critical, but stable."
Four months into his deployment, my husband John, an active-duty Marine, was seriously injured by a roadside bomb during combat operations in Afghanistan. We had been married for only 11 months, and I was suddenly transformed from military spouse to military caregiver.
When your loved one sacrifices parts of themselves -- in John's case, his teeth, half of his vision and a daily life without pain -- you lose part of yourself too. After John's injuries, I immediately stopped working as an occupational therapist to provide 24/7 care for him. My life was consumed with wound care, medication administration, managing appointments and surgeries, and much more. Today, eleven years later, John requires less care, but his needs still impact my life.
These challenges have made it exceedingly difficult to fulfill the financial commitments I made before John's injury, including my student loans. Stepping up to care for my husband's war wounds has undercut my career and, more importantly, jeopardized our ability to pay our bills.
In America, there are more than 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers just like me, and we are drowning. We are the first line of defense for our service members' and veterans' physical and mental health. We keep them in our homes, love them and do all the behind-the-scenes work to make sure they receive the care they deserve. There are many stressors on our resilient community, but the one that weighs most heavily on so many families is our finances, especially if you have student loan debt.
There are huge gaps in my resume from the years I took off to provide care. The result being I don't have that steady, unbroken career progression for which employers are looking, hurting my earning potential. I also need to choose jobs that give me the flexibility to take care of our family, as well as bring in an income that keeps the lights on.
That’s a difficult combination to find in a job. I am also falling behind my peers in terms of advancing professionally and earning higher salaries because my caregiver responsibilities make it nearly impossible to find the time and energy to complete additional certifications.
Social workers and mental health professionals who work for the Department of Veterans Affairs can apply for student loan forgiveness. Caregivers who want to go back to school after their loved one is injured can use government and private scholarship programs.
But for caregivers like me with preexisting student loans, there is no program, scholarship or nonprofit organization to help. We are silently struggling and need a lifeline.
A recently proposed bill, H.R. 2968, the Military and Veteran Caregiver Student Debt Relief Act, is the help our community needs. Introduced by Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., and Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, this legislation would include military and veteran caregivers enrolled in the VA's Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. This program forgives remaining federal student loan debt, following 10 years of on-time payments.
Caregivers are very much providing a public service by caring for our service members and veterans. According to Rand Corp., military and veteran caregivers save the federal government upward of $14 billion annually in expenses that otherwise would be borne by the nation. By including military and veteran caregivers in this preexisting program, our government would show military caregivers that their work is honored, seen and appreciated. It also would give our families critical financial stability and peace of mind by relieving the debt that we signed up for before our loved ones started paying the nation's debt for our freedom.
As a Marine, my husband was trained to improvise, adapt and overcome. Ever since I got that call in 2010, our family has had to do the same. It is time that Congress recognizes military and veteran caregivers as public servants and passes H.R. 2968.
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