Take care to help veterans who care for others too
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ noble motto, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan,” calls on all of us to care for the men and women who have served our country. Too often, we think about veterans for only one day a year, Veterans Day. But we should contemplate our veterans’ sacrifices and recommit to our duty to care for them in return — long after Nov. 11. While the programs that can support that commitment change from year to year, the challenges vets too often face remain the same and we must do better to give them the respect they deserve.
This year, the VA begins its yearslong expansion of the program that provides monetary assistance to family caregivers of post-9/11 veterans seriously injured in the line of duty to those caring for eligible veterans of all eras, including the elderly. This is a welcome change for those who work with elderly vets and know their struggles in obtaining long-term care with limited financial means. Yet as an attorney with LegalHealth, who staffs an on-site free legal clinic for older veterans at the Manhattan and Bronx VA hospitals in New York, I find far too many veteran clients who are seeking services not only for themselves, but care for others.
One such client came to LegalHealth seeking to prepare a will to protect his wife, children and grandchildren after his passing. Though separated from his wife at the time, he wanted to ensure she would inherit his belongings and any savings at the time of his passing, and to see that his adult child who had the least support caring for her children would inherit his car. In preparing his will, he reflected on a lifetime of trauma — beginning in childhood upon separation from his family in Puerto Rico, and culminating in combat in Vietnam where he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder now recognized through his disability compensation from the VA — and wondered whether he had always been a good family man in light of the psychological damage he suffered. He also expressed the love he has found in serving as a caregiver for his young grandchild and the healing he has experienced in this role.
My client’s concern for his loved ones is no surprise to those familiar with veterans’ culture and veterans’ challenges. In looking at the difficulties servicemembers face transitioning from the military, veterans and their advocates tend to note a loss of camaraderie, brotherhood and sisterhood, and unconditional devotion: the sense among their battle buddies and friends that they are ready to sacrifice for one another at any time. Indeed, I have found working with older veterans that I am not simply serving those who served but carrying out my clients’ wishes to care for others — their desire to see their friends and family are protected, secure and not overburdened. Each day, veterans come to LegalHealth to ask how spouses, children, grandchildren, friends, family and significant others can be cared for throughout their old age and after their death, through wills, survivors’ benefits, home care, housing rights and more.
The time is upon us to do more than simply honor our veterans. We must now focus our efforts on enacting real policy changes that will benefit our veterans and their families. The expanded caregiver program is one positive step by Congress toward the VA’s mission of caring for veterans, and it is something in which we can be proud. Much more will be needed, such as addressing the VA Office of Inspector General’s concerns about the caregiver program’s operations, and continuing to support our VA medical centers, which, based on Rand Corp.’s 2018 study sponsored by the New York State Health Foundation, are uniquely positioned among health care providers to meet veterans’ particular needs.
Yet I encourage us to also remember what my legal work has shown me — that in helping our older veterans, we are not simply caring for those who have borne the battle on our behalf; we are finally joining their brotherhood and sisterhood in a mission to protect, serve and care for their friends, family and loved ones.
Ruth Stein is an attorney with the Older Veterans Legal Clinics at the Bronx and Manhattan VA and the New York Legal Assistance Group.