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. 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 Corporation’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 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, Ph.D., RN, is the Executive Director of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving and Pope Eminent Scholar at Georgia Southwestern State University.