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

Op-ed by Jennifer Olsen in Americus Times-Recorder

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 >>

Learn more about Operation Family Caregiver at www.operationfamilycaregiver.org.