The service and sacrifice of our military caregiver kids deserves to be supported and recognized

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When Gabby Rodriquez was little, she used to ask other 5- and 6-year-olds on the playground: “Was your dad in the military? Does he have a boo-boo on his brain?” Today, at age nine, she helps her mom take care of her injured father. 

Zianny Pabon, age 12, helps her dad keep track of his medications and doctor appointments. Noah Stephens, age 20, has learned how to help his dad through a seizure if his mom isn’t home. Mason Wilson, just six years old, has become the family entertainer, always ready with a joke or story to put a smile on his parents’ faces when things seem hopeless. 

This Month of the Military Child, we are remembering these stories, told to us by a brave group of kids at the White House not long ago—just a snapshot of the 2.3 million kids who are the children of our nation’s wounded, ill, or injured service members and veterans. 

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These “hidden helpers,” who often carry adult-sized worries and responsibilities, are a critical piece of the support system that cares for those who return home with visible and invisible wounds of war. Yet, their service and their sacrifice often go unseen.

    The service and sacrifice of our military caregiver kids deserves to be supported and recognized

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    WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 10: First Lady Dr. Jill Biden holds hands with children of military and veteran caregiving families as she arrives at an event celebrating them in the East Room of the White House on November 10, 2021 in Washington, DC. The event was the first in-person event for First Lady Dr. Jill Biden’s Joining Forces initiative. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images) ( )

    The service and sacrifice of our military caregiver kids deserves to be supported and recognized

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    WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 10: Children of military and veteran caregiving families introduce First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in the East Room of the White House on November 10, 2021 in Washington, DC. The event was the first in person event for Dr. Biden’s Joining Forces initiative. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images) ( )

    The service and sacrifice of our military caregiver kids deserves to be supported and recognized

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    Right to Left-US First Lady Jill Biden, former Senator Elizabeth Dole, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough listen during an event to honor children in military and veteran caregiving families at the White House in Washington, DC on November 10, 2021. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images) ( )

That’s why the Elizabeth Dole Foundation commissioned the first in-depth analysis of children helping care for an injured loved one. In this research, experts found that families dealing with wounds and illnesses experience frequent disruptions in their lives. This causes high levels of stress in children, severely impacting their development and creating health problems, like anxiety, depression, burnout, fatigue, and social isolation.

Caregiver kids are strong. They meet the challenges of their lives with courage and resilience—but they are still kids. They, and their families, shouldn’t have to carry the weight of this responsibility alone. 

Despite their resilience, America should not lean on our youngest citizens to bear so much of the weight of wounded veterans’ care. That’s our nation’s responsibility.

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Our service members answer the call to defend America, sometimes at enormous personal costs. When they return home wounded, a loved one steps in to care for them—with 5.5 million Americans serving as military and veteran caregivers. We owe these families a reprieve.

Remarkably, just like their parents, hidden helpers find strength not only to carry on, but to provide a helping hand. Young people assist their parents with cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the household. Some have received training on what to do in an emergency. Older kids take on parental roles and act as assistant nurses and chauffeurs, while younger kids often find their role as comforters and entertainers when times are tough.

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    US First Lady Jill Biden, right, speaks with former Senator Elizabeth Dole during an event to honor children in military and veteran caregiving families at the White House in Washington, DC on November 10, 2021. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images) ( )

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    WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 10: Former Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) shakes hands with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during an event honoring children in military and veteran caregiving families in the East Room of the White House on November 10, 2021 in Washington, DC. The event was the first in-person event for First Lady Dr. Jill Biden’s Joining Forces initiative. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images) ( )

    The service and sacrifice of our military caregiver kids deserves to be supported and recognized

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    US First Lady Jill Biden speaks during an event to honor children in military and veteran caregiving families at the White House in Washington, DC on November 10, 2021. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images) ( )

Joining Forces has partnered with the Hidden Helpers Coalition, co-chaired by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and Wounded Warrior Project®, to announce that more than 70 organizations have already generated over 40 commitments to address the study’s findings—an unprecedented response from all sectors of society. 

We are committed to investing in new and expanded programs; identifying how the government can better support caregiver families; making clinical settings more kid-friendly; offering greater respite, relief, and emergency financial support to struggling families; and creating training materials for practitioners who interact with caregiver kids.

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When Gabby spoke at our event, she also told us about her jobs at home. She cooks pancakes on Sundays. She answers her little sister, Ava, when she asks “How’s the weather?”—code for asking about their dad’s mood. But most of all, she says her job is to “give love and bring light to my dad’s day.”

Caregiver kids are strong. They meet the challenges of their lives with courage and resilience—but they are still kids. They, and their families, shouldn’t have to carry the weight of this responsibility alone. 

All of us have a role to play in bringing these hidden helpers out of the shadows, and ensuring that their service and sacrifice are seen and supported. We must have their backs—so that kids like Gabby and Ava can shine with all the love and light they have.

Senator Elizabeth Dole is a former U.S. Senator of North Carolina, two-time member of the Presidential Cabinet, President of the American Red Cross, and founder of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.

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