Olsen Says Democracy Alive and Well

RCI’s Exec. Director Authors Opinion Piece in Americus Times-Recorder

America’s Democracy: Alive and Well, Thanks to Our Military and Veterans

Since the midterm elections earlier this month, there has been a lot of excitement about the changing demographics of the next Congress. Regardless of your political leanings, and whether you voted or not, change is afoot in both parties. A record number of women were elected to office, and while the number of veterans in the 116th Congress will probably (we are still waiting for some races to be verified) be slightly lower than the 102 veterans that began the last session, almost half of the them served after September 11, 2001.

According to the Military Times, while the number of veterans in Congress is in decline, the number of young veterans has increased every election since 2006. This is great news for those of us who are counting on our elected officials to help raise awareness about the challenges that veterans and service members—and their families—face when they return home.

That’s one of the goals of Operation Family Caregiver (OFC), a program for the families of those who have proudly served our nation and returned from their service to a country that frequently has no idea what they’ve been through. Many civilians just can’t relate, as they have little experience with the military. Studies have shown a huge, and growing, disconnect between military and non-military populations. A 2011 study by the Pew Research Center found that while more than three-quarters of adults age 50 or over had an immediate family member who had served in the military, only one-third of those ages 18-29 can say the same. In 2017, the Veterans’ Well-Being Survey completed by Edelman Intelligence found that only about one-quarter of the non-veterans that were surveyed believe they have a lot in common with veterans.

A government that represents military experience benefits this country for many reasons—not the least of which is an understanding of how military service affects the entire family. Since 9/11, more than 2.77 million service members have served in the global war on terrorism, and more than 50,000 have been seriously wounded in action. There are more than 1 million people caring for a service member who has returned with an injury—a task they did not expect and often are unprepared for.

Injured servicemen and women come home from war facing an entirely new set of circumstances. An estimated 1 in 5 return with posttraumatic stress or major depression, and more than 300,000 are estimated to have a traumatic brain injury. OFC is a proven program that coaches caregivers to adapt to the “new normal” when their loved ones return home with injuries both visible and invisible, through free and confidential support. Specially-trained “coaches” help caregivers learn how to overcome the obstacles they face and to manage any challenges that might come along.

OFC was started by the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, and evidence has shown it helps caregivers become more satisfied with their lives, have fewer health issues, and generally become more prepared to take care of their families. It is available in person in 8 locations across the country, or via video to caregivers around the world.

On November 11, we celebrated Veteran’s Day and honored our great nation’s servicemen and women, reserves, and of course our veterans. But we can’t forget what we ask of their families. That’s why November is also recognized as Military Family Appreciation Month and National Family Caregivers Month. This month, more Americans turned out to vote in midterms than had done so in half a century! It can be easy to forget in the heat of the moment that our military serves to protect our democracy, including the freedom to participate in elections. Please join me in honoring their sacrifice, and the sacrifice their families make, this November.

Jennifer Olsen, DrPH, is the executive director of the Rosalynn Carter Institutue for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University. 

Read op-ed in Americus Times-Recorder >>

Caregivers Honored at 2018 Summit

Caregivers Honored By Former First Lady at Caregiving Summit

Five Military Caregivers Receive Scholarships for their Commitment

Monday, November 5th, 2018— AMERICUS, GEORGIA — At a celebratory dinner on October 26, the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving (RCI) awarded five military spouses who have demonstrated a commitment to caring for their loved ones and taking care of themselves, with Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarships. Each recipient received a great honor and a monetary award.

The Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarship provides financial assistance to military caregivers who are committed to caring for their loved one but also recognize they need support in doing so. Each of these women has reached out for the help that has empowered them to be the best caregiver. Each has completed Operation Family Caregiver (OFC), RCI’s signature military program which provides support to the caregivers of service members and veterans who have been injured. The following caregivers received Stepanek Caregiving Scholarships in 2018.

MARIA BACA (ALBUQUERQUE, NM)

Maria was only 16 years old and her new husband not much older when he joined the U.S. Navy. Navy life treated them well, until his second tour of duty in Balad, Iraq, when Maria’s husband came home with a litany of ailments including sleeplessness, chronic fatigue and pain, emotional outbursts, memory loss, panic attacks, spitting-up blood, and headaches. As the couple searched for answers, they discovered that Maria’s husband was suffering from constrictive bronchiolitis, a respiratory illness caused by toxin and chemical exposure from the open air burn pits used to burn waste on military bases. Maria reached out to OFC and began working with a coach based at Florida State University. Moved by all she had learned, Maria became an advocate for those affected by burn pits. She contacted her state legislator about creating a Federal Open Burn Pit Registry, which was signed into law by President Obama in 2013, and then worked to have her home state of New Mexico enact similar legislation. The New Mexico state legislature passed the Senior Master Sergeant Jessey Baca Military Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry Act in 2015.

DONNA DANCER (BULVERDE, TX)

When most people think of war injuries, respiratory illnesses are not front of mind. But since 2003, Donna has been managing her husband’s chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (commonly known as COPD) and obstructive lung disease, a terminal illness often associated with smoking. Donna’s husband was not a smoker, but he was exposed to torrential sandstorms and environmental toxins during his Naval service. The effect has been devastating. He has suffered from numerous bouts of respiratory failure which doctors have treated with long-term, high-dose steroids that have caused Cushing’s Disease; soft, breaking bones; and wounds related to his thinning skin. Yet Donna never thought of herself as his caregiver, and until a few years ago she neglected her own health while focusing on his. Then she found OFC, offered by her local Blue Star Families chapter. Donna’s OFC coach helped her identify and focus on her own personal goals, which keep her optimistic about the future. Today, Donna spends her days caring for her husband in their bedroom with occasional “field trips” downstairs. She takes pleasure in providing him with the best life she can.

SHAWN MOORE (KANSAS CITY, MO)

Shawn met her husband as he was retiring from a 23-year Army career that included seven tours to Afghanistan. On their very first date, he told her that he suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a police officer, Shawn already was familiar with strategies that would help him, but she began educating herself further, then shared her learnings with others. She started a Hearts of Valor support group in 2013, became an Elizabeth Dole Fellow in 2016, and then in 2017 she started a nonprofit organization, Caregivers on the Homefront, to address the shortage of supports for pre-9/11 caregivers. Around the same time, Shawn—practicing the self-care she preached—responded to a Facebook post about OFC and quickly began working with Marti Rye, a caregiver coach at Easterseals UCP. Shawn’s OFC coach proved invaluable after her husband’s attempted suicide last summer, by helping her put things in perspective and persevere one day at a time. Sharing her story has helped Shawn find peace and move forward. Today she is pursuing a master’s degree in social work and hopes to teach caregivers and their families how to access their own resilience.

COURTNEY SANDERS (SHOREWOOD, IL)

One of the most difficult things for caregivers is focusing on themselves, and Courtney readily admits that it is not her strength. Between her husband, an 18-year Army veteran who was deployed for the Gulf War and Project Iraqi Freedom, their four children, and the students she was responsible for in her job as a university vice president, Courtney’s plate was full. Someone else always took priority— and the challenges that came with her new marriage to a veteran left her struggling with challenges she was not ready for and had little experience in. But thankfully the people Courtney surrounded herself with encouraged her to prioritize herself, and she found support. At a retreat hosted by Hearts of Valor, she learned about and enrolled in OFC. Courtney felt an instant connection with her caregiver coach Kim Fuller, who forced her to think differently and armed her with tools to increase her resilience. Shortly after returning from the retreat, she began working for the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program at Catholic Charities, and she also runs the Chicagoland Hearts of Valor Chapter. Courtney appreciates that she can share what she learned from OFC with both her clients and her coworkers.

JEANNINE SZUMIGALA (DEPEW, NY)

Jeannine has an extensive family background rooted in the military: grandfathers who are veterans of World War II, uncles who are Vietnam veterans, and a father who is a Korean War veteran. They never talked much about their experiences, so when Jeannine met her husband, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, she didn’t ask too many questions. Over the next 11 years, they had five children, and her husband’s health declined. Yet when he said he needed help, Jeannine’s response was “I need help.” About that time, they received three letters from the Department of Defense, confirming that he had been exposed to particular toxins during his service and was presumed disabled. Jeannine jumped into a role as his caregiver and lost sight of the help she still needed for herself. In October 2017, she noticed a magnet for the Veterans One-stop Center of Western New York. It had been hanging on her refrigerator for months, and when she called, an OFC coach called back quickly.

Jeannine’s coach helped her see herself as a caregiver and pointed her to resources designed for military caregivers. For the first time, Jeannine felt that someone was with her on her journey, without judgment. Last fall, Jeannine says she was lonely, depressed, isolated, anxious, and overwhelmed. Today she feels empowered, has new skills, and is no longer fearful of the future.

“I wish we could have awarded scholarships to every caregiver who applied,” said RCI’s executive director, Dr. Jennifer Olsen. “Those who were selected represent the many different experiences of military caregivers and demonstrate their great strength and resilience. I am honored to recognize and celebrate their sacrifice.”

The scholarships are named for Mattie J.T. Stepanek, a dear friend of President and Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Mattie believed that although we all have life storms, there is a champion within each of us, waiting to emerge and pull us through. He died on June 22, 2004, just a month before his 14th birthday, due to complications of Dysautonomic Mitochondrial Myopathy, a rare and fatal neuromuscular disease. During his brief life, Mattie created seven New York Times bestselling books and served as the National Goodwill Ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. His philosophy of “remembering to play after every storm” has brought inspiration and hope to millions worldwide. The Rosalynn Carter Institute’s (RCI) Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarship honors Mattie’s memory by supporting those who care for their loved ones.

“Although Mattie knew his life would probably be short, he always saw his glass as half full instead of half empty,” said Laura Bauer, Executive Director of the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Foundation. “This year’s awardees epitomize the positivity and hope that guided Mattie’s life. They are all champions.”

First Lady Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn Carter Hosts Summit to Celebrate Caregivers

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter Hosts Summit to Celebrate and Educate Caregivers

Operation Family Caregiver Partners with VA, Expands to Three New Sites

Monday, October 29th, 2018 — AMERICUS, GEORGIA — The Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving(RCI) announced a milestone agreement with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and bestowed awards upon exemplary caregivers at its caregiver summit on October 26. The 31st annual summit, held on the campus of Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, Georgia, featured a welcome address from former First Lady Rosalynn Carter; a keynote speech by Mike Daly, whose caregiver journey has been documented over the past decade on CBS’s 60 Minutes; and practical panels on caregiver issues such as legal planning and self-care.

At the end of the day, Dr. Jennifer Olsen, RCI’s new executive director, introduced three new Operation Family Caregiver (OFC) sites that will be located at VA facilities in Tucson, Arizona; Temple, Texas (Central); and Fayetteville, North Carolina. These sites are the result of a dynamic new partnership between RCI and the VA’s Caregiver Support Program, and made possible by the generous support of the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation.

OFC is RCI’s signature military program. It is a proven, evidence-based program that provides support to the families of newly returning service members and veterans. Specially-trained coaches teach military families the skills needed to help overcome unforeseen challenges and cope more effectively with problems they never imagined. Caregivers who have completed the program report being less depressed and more satisfied with their lives, have fewer health complaints, and are generally more prepared to take care of their families. Those caregivers who are parents also report reduced anxiety among their child or children. Since its launch in 2012 with catalytic funding from Johnson & Johnson, OFC has helped nearly 850 families across the country.

“We know that family caregivers are critical members of a veteran’s treatment team, and OFC is doing a fantastic job providing them with all the tools they need to care for their veteran and also for themselves,” said Meg Kabat, the National Director of the Caregiver Support Program for the VA. “It is in all of our interests to make the program an integral part of a veteran’s healthcare.”

“The Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation is proud to partner with the VA and the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving to increase access to a program like Operation Family Caregiver, which we know makes a huge difference in the mental health and well-being of veterans and their families,” said John Damonti, President of the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation.

Following the summit, Mrs. Carter honored 8 caregivers and one organization that exemplify excellence in caregiving at a celebratory dinner. The 2018 Rosalynn Carter Leadership in Caregiving Award was awarded to Riverside Center for Excellence in Aging and Lifelong Health in Williamsburg, Virginia.

In addition, five caregivers who have completed OFC, were awarded with Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarships. The Stepanek Scholarships provide financial assistance to military caregivers who have demonstrated a commitment to caring not only for their loved ones, but for themselves. The 2018 awardees are Maria Baca of Albuquerque, New Mexico; Donna Dancer of Bulverde, Texas; Shawn Moore of Kansas City, Missouri; Courtney Sanders of Shorewood, Illinois; and Jeannine Szumigala of Depew, New York.

Finally, three Georgia-based caregivers received Caregiver of the Year Awards in the following categories: Susan Chamblee of Savannah was named the Georgia Volunteer Caregiver of the Year; Renee Peak of Savannah was named the Georgia Family Caregiver of the Year; and Mamie Smith of Macon was named the Georgia Para-Professional Caregiver of the Year.

“This summit showcased the reasons I was drawn to the Rosalynn Carter Institute: the striking realities caregivers face today, their strength and resilience, and the capacity of the philanthropic and public sectors to take care of our veterans and their families,” said Dr. Olsen. “I am honored to be here and ready to get started.”

National Summit to Take Place This Fall

National Summit to Take Place This Fall

The Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving Will Host its 31st Annual Summit Oct. 25-26

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018— AMERICUS, GEORGIA — For more than 30 years, the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving has supported family, volunteer. and professional caregivers through efforts of advocacy, education, research, and service. The RCI will host its 31st Annual National Summit on October 25th-26th, 2018. Today’s caregiver must tread through many paths seeking solutions and proven effective supports to thrive in the world of caregiving. Our one day conference hopes to empower caregivers who are caring for others with diverse, chronic illnesses and disability across the lifespan.

Our target audience of family and professional caregivers, service providers, and volunteers will hear from experts on topics all caregivers can relate to: You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know: Legal Planning for the Future; The “A” Team: Building Your Care Team; Mind, Body, and Spirit: Complete Self-Care; and Coming Out of the Shadows: Caregiver Panel.

Visit the Rosalynn Carter Insitute for Caregiving to learn more or register for the Summit.

2018 Stepanek Scholarship Open

Applications Open for Caregiving Scholarship

Five Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarship winners will receive $2,000

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018 — AMERICUS, GEORGIA — The Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving (RCI) is pleased to open nominations for the 2018 Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarship. The Stepanek Scholarships provide financial assistance to military caregivers who have demonstrated a commitment to caring not only for their loved ones, but also for themselves.

As soldiers return from war with injuries both visible and invisible, young spouses and aging parents find themselves in a new and challenging role—as caregivers. One of the most difficult tasks for those who become caregivers is to take good care of themselves. Operation Family Caregiver (OFC) is a program designed to help military families work through the difficulties they face when a service member returns home.

OFC caregiver coaches meet with a caregiver in person, by phone or Skype, and customize a 16- to 24-week program that is tailored to each family. Together, caregivers and their coaches develop strategies that can help them get through the tough times and make plans for how to manage over the long term. The program was founded in 2012 by RCI and is now in 13 sites across 10 states and the District of Columbia.

The Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarship is available to military caregivers who have completed the OFC program by the application deadline of August 31, 2018. Five $2,000 scholarships will be awarded at RCI’s 31st Anniversary Summit in Americus, Georgia, Oct. 26, 2018.

The scholarship is named for Mattie J.T. Stepanek, who died on June 22, 2004, just a month before his 14th birthday, due to complications of Dysautonomic Mitochondrial Myopathy, a rare and fatal neuromuscular disease. Mattie was a friend to both President and Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. He believed that although we all have life storms, there is a champion within each of us, waiting to emerge and pull us through. During his brief life, Mattie became a poet and peace activist, championing the idea that “Hope is real, peace is possible, and life is worthy!” This caregiving scholarship honors his memory and his optimism.

2017 Winners

APPLICATION FORM

OFC Continues In Washington State

Military Caregiver Support Program to Continue in Washington State

Bob Woodruff Foundation Awards Grant to Support OFC for Another Year

Tuesday, July 17th, 2018– AMERICUS, GA – After one and a half years of successfully providing a critical support system to military caregivers in the state of Washington, Operation Family Caregiver (OFC) is pleased that the program will continue for the next year. The Bob Woodruff Foundation (BWF) has announced a new grant to the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving (RCI), which administers the unique military caregiver support program. BWF works to ensure injured veterans and their families are thriving long after they return home.

OFC is a proven, evidence-based program that provides support to the families of newly returning service members and veterans. Specially-trained coaches teach military families the skills they need to overcome unforeseen challenges and cope more effectively with problems they never imagined. Caregivers who have completed the program report being less depressed and more satisfied with their lives, have fewer health complaints, and are generally more prepared to take care of their families.

Since its launch in 2012, OFC has helped more than 700 families across the country. It can be provided in person or via Skype. In Washington state, the program is implemented by Easterseals Washington, which has been serving children and adults with disabilities across the state as a stand-alone non-profit organization since 1947. Easterseals Washington began offering OFC’s unique skill-building training to military caregivers last year. The program provides much-needed support to military caregivers across the state, which is home to more than 580,000 veterans and many more service members.

“We were so pleased that the Bob Woodruff Foundation brought OFC into Washington state,” said RCI’s executive director Dr. Leisa Easom, “and we have seen significant benefits to caregivers in the Pacific Northwest. I am thrilled that the foundation recognizes the value of this program and will continue to fund it for the next year.”

2017 Caregiving Scholarships Awarded

Five Military Caregivers Receive Mattie J.T. Stepanek Scholarships

Caregivers Honored at Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving Summit by Former First Lady

Monday, November 6th, 2017— AMERICUS, GEORGIA — At a celebratory dinner on October 27, the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving (RCI) awarded five deserving military spouses with Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarships. They received a great distinction as well as a monetary award.

The Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarship provides financial assistance to military caregivers who have already reached out for the help that will better equip them to support their loved ones. Each of these women has found a way to care for herself, even as she cares for someone else. Each has completed Operation Family Caregiver (OFC), RCI’s signature military program which provides support to the caregivers of service members and veterans who have been injured. The following caregivers received Stepanek Caregiving Scholarships in 2017.

DEIDRE BLASCYK (FORT HOOD, TX)

Deidre is battling the war at home on many fronts. Since 2008, she has been the primary caregiver for her ex-husband, a Navy veteran with pins in his legs, and emotional and behavioral issues. When Deidre’s current husband left the Army in 2016, she began helping him through health concerns including frequent headaches, mood swings, trouble breathing, and knee and back pain. And recently, Deidre’s youngest daughter was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease that causes progressive neurological impairment throughout childhood and into the adult years. Deidre’s is a seasoned caregiver who has benefited greatly from the guidance given by her OFC coach.

KRISTA CLINE (SAN ANTONIO, TX)

Krista married her high school sweetheart just two months before his first deployment to Iraq. When he returned, she immediately noticed that something had changed. It took many years before Krista and her husband were finally able to face his challenges together, and when they discovered he was suffering from PTSD, Krista found herself in a new role as his caregiver. Krista found herself lonely, anxious, confused, and afraid, but she discovered a beacon of hope in OFC. After nine months of coaching, she finally can see a future again for herself and her husband. Krista recently was certified to be a coach for others, feeling thankful for the support she received and hopeful that she can be a beacon to others in her position.

WANDA ICKES (ALUM BANK, PA)

When Wanda and her husband met, he had already been through a serious military accident that left him injured and struggling. But subsequent injuries worsened his condition, and one final incident in January 2008 ended his military career. With little support from the military after he returned, Wanda discovered a new role: she became a fierce advocate for her husband, and she has been active in the caregiving community since then. While a student at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, she was hired as an intern with OFC and then became a certified coach to help others in the program. She is a Caregiver Fellow with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and a Peer Mentor with the VA Caregiver Peer Support Mentoring Program. In June of 2017, Wanda testified before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging in support of the Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act. She has benefited greatly from her experience with OFC and other caregiver organizations.

LETICIA JOHNSON (ORLANDO, FL)

Leticia was a single mother and taking care of her own mother when she was moved to search online for an old friend who had once been a romantic interest. This time, their timing was right, and within a year, they were married. But soon, she noticed a difference in her husband, and feared she would lose him to suicide. Leticia knew she needed to do something. She reached out to OFC and helped her husband, now diagnosed with PTSD and a variety of physical ailments, find help groups as well. OFC and other programs, along with a loving family, have provided the support Leticia needed to find a better life with her family.

EMILY MATHER (BATAVIA, OHIO)

Emily had been married for three years when her husband was shot in the face by a sniper while on patrol in Baghdad, Iraq. Emily had been a key spouse volunteer (an Air Force program that supports families) and the family readiness leader for her husband’s unit, but when the tides turned, there was no protocol for who would play that role for her. She struggled but soon found her way. When Emily’s husband came home, she learned everything she needed to know about how to be his caregiver, and after a time she began to focus on herself as well. She enrolled in OFC last year and after completing the program, trained to be a caregiver coach herself. Emily acknowledges that life is a “constant journey of healing and self-love.”

“Each of these military caregivers are coping with challenges we all hope we never have to face,” said RCI’s executive director Dr. Leisa Easom, “but they wake up and face the morning every single day. They are strong and resilient and an inspiration. It is my great honor to formally recognize them for their dedication.”

The scholarships are named for Mattie J.T. Stepanek, a dear friend of President and Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Mattie believed that although we all have life storms, there is a champion within each of us, waiting to emerge and pull us through. He died on June 22, 2004, just a month before his 14th birthday, due to complications of Dysautonomic Mitochondrial Myopathy, a rare and fatal neuromuscular disease. During his brief life, Mattie created seven New York Times bestselling books and served as the National Goodwill Ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. His philosophy of “remembering to play after every storm” has brought inspiration and hope to millions worldwide. The Rosalynn Carter Institute’s (RCI) Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarship honors Mattie’s memory by supporting those who care for their loved ones.

Easom Pens Op-ed for Memorial Day

RCI Exec. Director Publishes Op-Ed in Atlanta Journal Constitution

Leisa Easom: Honoring Our Heroes and Their Loved Ones This Memorial Day

The last Monday in May is a solemn one, particularly for those whose loved ones have sacrificed their lives for our nation’s freedom. Memorial Day was originally celebrated as Decoration Day, and it was proclaimed in 1868 by Gen. John Logan, who had been a Northern commander in the Civil War. The day was intended to honor those who laid down their lives to defend their country in the Civil War. It was declared a national holiday to honor the dead of all America’s wars in 1971.

Each year on Memorial Day, we continue the tradition of honoring those who gave their lives for our country. We can use this day, as well, to honor all those who have not given their lives but who continue to give of themselves and their families to keep our nation and its people secure and free. This includes the many soldiers and veterans who serve, as well as the loved ones who take care of them when they return.

Technology and the nature of war today results in far fewer deaths, thankfully, but many more debilitating injuries. According to the Wounded Warrior Project, in World War I and World War II, for every U.S. soldier killed, 1.7 soldiers were wounded. In Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, seven U.S. soldiers are wounded for every American death. This is a seismic shift in the equation of war. And while we are unequivocally grateful for far fewer deaths, the increase in wounded warriors tests our capacity to care for them.

Many men and women come home from these recent conflicts having sustained serious injuries, both visible and invisible. Some of the more traditional injuries remain common: amputations, burns, loss of hearing, and crush injuries, to name a few. But the “signature injury” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, doctors say, is traumatic brain injury (TBI). An estimated 31 percent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reported experiencing a TBI or have a mental health condition, according to the RAND Corp.’s report Invisible Wounds of War.

These types of injuries often leave soldiers or veterans feeling unlike themselves – as if something is wrong, but they can’t say what. A TBI can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, difficulty remembering things or paying attention, problems sleeping, and mood swings. The symptoms often mimic stress or anxiety, so the injury can seem less severe or real. Oftentimes, friends and family are the ones who notice a problem.

Injuries, whether visible or not, affect not only the affected soldier or veteran but also his or her family. Loved ones often find themselves in a unique and unexpected position: obligated or compelled to become a caregiver for someone who just moments ago was strong and capable but now needs extensive help. These new responsibilities can take a large toll. According to another RAND report, Hidden Heroes: America’s Military Caregivers, about one-third of military caregivers are spouses, and almost 40 percent are under age 30. A quarter of them are parents, who might have had different plans for when the kids left home. More than 60 percent work outside of the home, so almost a third say they gave up their job to become a caregiver.

These heroes behind our heroes did not make the ultimate sacrifice for America that so many soldiers have. But they sacrifice pieces of their life every day, giving of themselves to honor those soldiers who do come home. This Memorial Day, I hope you will remember the great sacrifices made by our heroes and their families, because every one of them deserves our thanks. And if you know a military caregiver who could use a little extra support, please send them our way: www.operationfamilycaregiver.org.

Leisa R. Easom, PhD, RN, is the executive director of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University.

Read op-ed in Atlanta Journal Constitution >>

Applications Open for 2017 Caregiving Scholarship

Applications Open for 2017 Caregiving Scholarship

Five Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarship winners will receive $2,000

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017— AMERICUS, GEORGIA — The Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving (RCI) is pleased to open nominations for the 2017 Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarship. The Stepanek Scholarships provide financial assistance to military caregivers who have demonstrated a commitment to caring not only for their loved ones, but also for themselves.

As soldiers return from war with injuries both visible and invisible, young spouses and aging parents find themselves in a new and challenging role—as caregivers. One of the most difficult tasks for those who become caregivers is to take good care of themselves. Operation Family Caregiver (OFC) is a program designed to help military families work through the difficulties they face when a service member returns home.

OFC caregiver coaches meet with a caregiver in person, by phone or Skype, and customize a 16- to 24-week program that is tailored to each family. Together, caregivers and their coaches develop strategies that can help them get through the tough times and make plans for how to manage over the long term. The program was founded in 2012 by RCI and is now in 13 sites across 10 states and the District of Columbia.

The Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarship is available to military caregivers who have completed the OFC program by the application deadline of August 31, 2017. Five $2,000 scholarships will be awarded at RCI’s 30th Anniversary Summit in Americus, Georgia, Oct. 25-27, 2017.

The scholarship is named for Mattie J.T. Stepanek, who died on June 22, 2004, just a month before his 14th birthday, due to complications of Dysautonomic Mitochondrial Myopathy, a rare and fatal neuromuscular disease. Mattie was a friend to both President and Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. He believed that although we all have life storms, there is a champion within each of us, waiting to emerge and pull us through. During his brief life, Mattie became a poet and peace activist, championing the idea that “Hope is real, peace is possible, and life is worthy!” This caregiving scholarship honors his memory and his optimism.

Read about the 2016 Scholarship Recipients

OFC Launches in Washington State

OFC Launches in Washington State

Easterseals Washington Hosts Launch Event for Operation Family Caregiver

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017Easterseals Washington welcomed military caregivers, nonprofit organizations and members of the Washington military community to their Operation Family Caregiver (OFC) launch in January at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue. Attendees were greeted by special guest-speaker, Lieutenant Governor Cyrus Habib, who shared his own personal story of living with a disability and spoke to the need for greater support for our veterans, their families, and their caregivers. Mr. Habib offered his support for the program and helped set the tone for a very successful program kickoff.

Next up, Easterseals Washington President & CEO, Cathy Bisaillon, introduced their organization and expressed her excitement for this new opportunity to serve military caregivers throughout the state. Although Easterseals Washington serves many military families through other core programs, OFC is the first military-specific program. “We are proud to have been selected as the provider for OFC in Washington, and we look forward to giving back to military families that have served all of us during their duty,” stated Bisaillon.

The final speaker of the morning was Laura Bauer, National Program Director of Operation Family Caregiver – pictured below, on the far right. Laura shared her expertise in the military caregiving field and gave an in-depth look of the program. Following an informative Q&A session, the event wrapped up with a very positive outlook for the success of OFC in Washington. The Bob Woodruff Foundation committed to fund the Easterseals site during the OFC Summit held at the Carter Center in July of 2016.

What is Operation Family Caregiver?

Operation Family Caregiver (OFC) coaches the families of returning service members and veterans to manage the difficulties they face when they come home. OFC is a personalized program, tailored specifically to the struggles of each family. Through proven methods, the program teaches military families how best to navigate their challenges, resulting in stronger and healthier families.