Tom Hanks joins call to help military caregivers

Actor Tom Hanks speaks at the launch of the Hidden Heroes campaign for military caregivers. Hidden Heroes is a campaign created by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation to call attention to the 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers in the United States.
Ken-Yon Hardy/Stars and Stripes

By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 28, 2016

WASHINGTON — The public service announcement begins with Tom Hanks introducing himself on a black screen.

He walks over to a man in a wheelchair, who is missing both legs and is flanked by his wife and two daughters. His name is Chaz Allen – Airborne, wounded in combat. Hanks calls him a hero and thanks him for his service.

Then Hanks introduces himself to Allen’s wife, Jessica. She’s a hero too, Hanks says. Because Chaz Allen needs a lot of help, and his wife is also raising their two girls.

“Which makes me want to thank you for your service, Jessica,” Hanks says. “You are a hidden hero.”

There are more than 5.5 million caregivers for the nation’s military wounded or ill, and they often go unrecognized, Hanks said.

With this message, he joined the Elizabeth Dole Foundation on the stage of the Capitol Congressional Auditorium on Tuesday to launch the Hidden Heroes campaign aimed at shining a light nationwide on the challenges military caregivers face and to rally communities, nonprofits and businesses to help those caregivers function and cope.

“Bringing our country’s hidden heroes – and that’s what they are, heroes that are hidden and out of sight – bringing them out of the shadows and honoring their service is a companion piece, I think, to welcoming home those who have served,” said Hanks, chairman of the Hidden Heroes campaign.

“I am going to start and end with the same simple question to each of you and all those who are watching at home and around the world on our live stream: What part in the movement are you going to play? I trust the stories of honor and sacrifice we will now share … will bring you to your answer."

During a two-hour presentation Tuesday before several hundred invited guests that was streamed live, Sen. Elizabeth Dole was joined by Hanks, NBC News Special Correspondent Tom Brokaw, community and business leaders and caregivers who shared their stories.

They send their loved ones off to war, and one day pick up a phone and their lives have changed. Their son, daughter or spouse comes home in need of constant care.

It’s overwhelming and isolating, said Kristi Dumas, whose husband, Hal, is a veteran of the Iraq war. He experienced the worst of combat and saw battle that left many of his buddies with catastrophic injuries. His emerged more slowly, after he came home.

“When you care for a veteran with invisible wounds, your role as caregiver is invisible too,” Dumas said. Coworkers don’t know when your husband’s nightmares kept you awake all night; people at the mall don’t know you are constantly keeping an eye out for triggers or watching your veteran for telltale signs.

“We love and admire our veterans,” she said. “But it can be isolating and challenging.”

Brokaw described how with just 1 percent of the country serving in the military, few understand what military families face when their loved ones go off to war. Even fewer recognize what happens when the servicemembers come back in need of care.

It’s the nation’s obligation, he said, to help with that care.

“When we go to war, we should all go to war,” he said. “And that’s the enduring lesson of what’s going on now.”

Since launching her foundation in 2012 to support military caregivers, Dole said it has brought together more than 300 military caregivers and began offering them services – online classes, free training webinars, job fairs, mental respite retreats, family counseling and financial planning and legal resources.

The foundation drew attention to military caregivers, and veterans groups began to incorporate programs for caregivers into their missions, she said. That has empowered the foundation to dream even bigger.

“Today the foundation envisions an America where military caregivers are empowered, appreciated and recognized for their service to the nation. We envision an America where supporting military caregivers is no longer a cause, it is part of the culture of our nation.”

As part of the launch, the campaign is calling on cities across the United States to commit to helping military caregivers. On Tuesday, the campaign issued a list of 54 cities from San Diego to Little Rock, Ark., and Washington to Yuma, Ariz., that have made the commitment.

Jessica Allen introduced Hanks again at the end of Tuesday's event, saying she hoped the campaign would “awaken America to the service and sacrifice of our nation’s caregivers.”

She said when she got the call asking whether she wanted to bring her family to California to meet Hanks, it was a mix of excitement and also a bit of alarm. Traveling in a military caregiver family is never easy, she said.

“Imagine all the moving parts – literally all the legs you have to take on the plane,” she said to laughter from the other caregivers.

Hanks described how from the day she got the call and ran to the bedside of her sweetheart, “she immediately began managing and caring and taking control. And it’s what she has done very single day since.”

“Every single day,” Hanks emphasized. He added later: “We need your help today. We will need it tomorrow. We will need it every single day.”

To learn more about the Hidden Heroes campaign, what you can do to help or to register as a caregiver, go to www.hiddenheroes.org.

Twiitter: @DiannaCahn

Actor Tom Hanks addresses the crowd at the launch of the Hidden Heroes campaign for military caregivers. Hidden Heroes is a groundbreaking campaign created by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation to call attention to the countries 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers.