Robert W. Briggs, a former Army sergeant, was severely injured in Iraq and needs constant monitoring because of traumatic brain injury, blindness in one eye and paralysis on one side. He walks with the help of a service dog. Briggs gave up her job as a veterinarian technician to care for him and their two kids.
On Tuesday, Michelle Briggs and fourteen other caregivers started more than 50 planned visits to congressional offices on Capitol Hill this week armed with a simple message: We need help.
"Mentally, it takes a very big toll on you," said Briggs, 34, of Hillsboro, Iowa, whose husband was injured in a rocket grenade attack in 2005 while serving with the Iowa National Guard. "You have to be a very strong person to get through a lot of it. It's a choice whether you stay or not. It's very much a choice."
Briggs said she's met other spouses of injured veterans who sought a divorce.
"It doesn't make them a bad person at all, but they just couldn't handle the situation because it's very, very stressful and you have to fight for the things that you're entitled to," Briggs said.
The caregivers say parents, spouses and siblings of the disabled have given up jobs, health insurance and college to care for a loved one. Yet they get no compensation to ease the burden.
"We're providing them with such a better quality of life and we need support in order to provide that," said Tracy Keil, 31, of Parker, Colo., whose husband, Matthew Keil, was paralyzed from the chest down from a sniper's bullet in 2007 and now needs around-the-clock care.
The two married six weeks before he was injured. She said she gave up the job she had as an accountant for 11 years and makes $60,000 less working from home part-time for a nonprofit organization.
The caregivers seek passage of legislation that would require the Veterans Affairs Department to offer more training to primary caregivers of severely injured veterans from the recent wars. Those certified would be eligible for benefits such as health care and a stipend of a few hundred dollars a week.
The alternative, they say, would be life in an institution for some veterans now mostly in their 20s or 30s.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, who authored legislation in the Senate to address the issue with Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said there are more than just an isolated few families asking for help.
"This has been growing, growing to the point now where we can not ignore it," Akaka said.
Akaka, D-Hawaii, said he's waiting for a final analysis about how much the legislation would cost, although he's confident keeping a veteran in the home is cheaper than a nursing home.
The VA has expressed concerns about the cost of the legislation. It has also said it would divert from the agency's mission of providing care to veterans and training clinicians, and said some of the same services are provided in other programs.
Phil Budahn, a VA spokesman, said in a statement the agency would continue to look for ways to "appropriately support these compassionate providers."
Steven Nardizzi, executive director of the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Wounded Warrior Project, which organized the caregivers' effort this week, said what the VA provides simply isn't adequate. He said the VA needs to adapt its primary mission to include helping families of the wounded, and providing health benefits and a stipend would go a long way.
"If the VA thinks they're already providing or the administration thinks they're already providing support, it's because they're simply not paying attention and not listening to the families right now," Nardizzi said.
His group estimates that under legislation it's seeking, about 750 caregivers would be eligible long-term, whereas several thousand would participate for about one to three years.
Briggs said she's thrown out her back at different times lifting her husband. She said she went through a period of depression as she adjusted to their new life but has learned to find comfort talking to other caregivers. She said she's dedicated to making their arrangement work but could use more resources.
"I love him and we've been married - it will be 15 years in November. It's like your marriage vows for better or worse," Briggs said. "This wasn't his fault, and there would be no one else to take care of him properly. He would be in a nursing home."