Colleen Rose is an Elizabeth Dole Foundation Fellow and Occupational Therapist based in Fairfax County, Virginia. She is looking after her husband John, a Marine who sustained serious injuries from an improvised explosive device while on duty in Afghanistan in 2010.
What if you get the call you pray you would never get? “Ms. Rose, your husband was wounded. We only have new details. He is critical but stable.”
Four months after his deployment, my husband John, an active Marine, was seriously injured by a roadside bomb during combat operations in Afghanistan. We had only been married 11 months and I suddenly went from being a military wife to a military caregiver.
When your loved one sacrifices parts of himself – in John’s case his teeth, half his eyesight, and a pain-free daily life – you also lose part of yourself. After John’s injuries, I immediately stopped working as an occupational therapist for him to supply around the clock. My life was shaped by wound care, drug administration, appointments and operations and much more. Today, 11 years later, John needs less care, but his needs still affect my life.
These challenges have made it extremely difficult to meet the financial commitments I made prior to John’s injury, including my student loans. Caring for my husband’s war wounds has undermined my career and, more importantly, has jeopardized our ability to pay our bills.
America has more than 5.5 million military personnel and skilled caregivers like me, and we’re drowning. We are the first line of defense to the physical and mental health of our soldiers and veterans. We keep them in our homes, love them, and do all of the behind-the-scenes work to make sure they get the care they deserve. There are many stressors to our resilient community, but the one that weighs the worst on so many families is our finances, especially when you have student loan debt.
There are large gaps in my resume from the years that I chose to care. The result is that I don’t have the steady, uninterrupted career development employers are looking for, which is affecting my earnings potential. I also need to choose jobs that give me the flexibility to look after our family, as well as an income that keeps the lights on.
It’s a difficult combination in a job. I also fall behind my colleagues in terms of professional development and higher salaries, as my responsibility as a supervisor makes it almost impossible to find the time and energy for additional certifications.
Social workers and mental health professionals working for the Department of Veterans Affairs can apply for student loan waivers. Caregivers who want to return to school after an injury to their loved one can take advantage of government and private scholarship programs.
But for supervisors like me with existing student loans, there is no program, scholarship, or non-profit organization that can help. We fight in silence and need a lifeline.
A recently proposed bill, HR 2968, the Debt Relief Act for Military and Veteran Caregivers, 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 carers enrolled in the VA’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program of Extensive Family Caregiver Support . This program releases the remaining federal debt on student loans after 10 years of on-time payments.
Nurses do a public service by taking care of our service members and veterans. According to Rand Corp., federal government military and veteran carers save more than $ 14 billion annually in expenses that would otherwise be borne by the nation. By including military and seasoned nurses in this pre-existing program, our government would show military nurses that their work is honored, seen and valued. It would also give our families critical financial stability and peace of mind by canceling the debts we entered into before our loved ones began paying the nation’s debts for our freedom.
As a Marine, my husband was trained to improvise, adapt, and overcome. Our family has had to do the same since I got that call in 2010. It is time Congress recognized service members and experienced nurses as officials and passed HR 2968.
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