Aguanga woman advocates for veteran caregivers in Washington

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Krystle Hamlett takes a photo with Rep. Raul Ruiz, M.D., of California at the National Convening for Veteran Caregivers in Washington, Oct. 20-25. Courtesy photo

Krystle Hamlett of Aguanga made a trip to Washington to take part in the fourth annual National Convening for Veteran Caregivers, “Hidden Heroes Among Us: Inspiring Community Action in the Caregiver Journey,” as a Dole Caregiver Fellow for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation in October.

Krystle Hamlett and her disabled veteran husband Sgt. William Hamlett run a nonprofit organization to assist caregivers and give insight to this labor of love. The Caregiver Healing Foundation assists military care providers with getaways, gifts and support.

Named a 2019 Dole Caregiver Fellow earlier this year, Hamlett joined others in advocacy during the event.

According to Hidden Heroes, Dole Caregiver Fellows serve as ambassadors for military caregivers in their communities and across the nation. They are trained by the foundation and empowered to share their stories and perspectives directly with the White House, Congress, Department of Veterans Affairs and other government agencies, as well as leaders in the business, entertainment and nonprofit sectors. They advise the foundation, its coalition partners, and government and community leaders on the most pressing issues concerning military caregivers and influence positive change on behalf of these hidden heroes.

“I went to DC with other Dole Caregiver Fellows representing all 50 states to meet with members of Congress to share our caregiving stories and advocate on behalf of America’s 5.5 million hidden heroes,” Hamlett said.

Dole Caregiver Fellows are the heart and soul of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. They are active military and veteran caregivers from across the nation who are carefully selected each year to represent the foundation in a formal capacity. Each class has approximately 25-30 fellows who serve two-year term before transitioning into the Alumni Association.

“I am personally proud to represent our little town of Aguanga to bring awareness of veterans and military caregivers living in rural areas,” she said. “Storming The United States Capitol Building with all these amazing Military and Veteran Caregivers was such an adrenaline rush. Then to be able to stand in the middle of the United States Capitol rotunda was a once in a lifetime experience I will never forget.”

The Dole Caregiver Fellows met with their members of Congress, sharing their personal caregiving stories on behalf of America’s 5.5 million hidden hero veteran caregivers.

“I personally shared how my veteran husband and I, his caregiver, are having issues with the VA trying to get our home retrofitted with a handicapped accessible bathroom,” Hamlett said. “We have requested a standard tub to be installed since he has been approved for a ceiling lift that will place him in the tub. Having a standard tub rather than a shower would allow him to not be in the same sitting position all day long which can cause dangerous pressure sores. While we have gone through the proper channels to get a Home Improvements and Structural Alterations grant which involves a referral from primary care for a tub installation and approval from the physical therapy department. However, once the grant request hit the dispersing department for funds, we received the news that the VA does not approve standard tub installations. We were told we would need to get Congress involved to get an approval.”

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, former first lady Michelle Obama, actor Tom Hanks, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, news anchor Savannah Guthrie and singer Rita Wilson, along with the Dole Caregiver Fellows, spent the week sharing their stories.

Lisa Pape, the deputy chief patient care services officer at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and Harriet Dominique, senior vice president of corporate responsibility and community affairs at USAA, discussed the power of partnerships and integrating caregivers into the veteran’s health care team.

“I also discussed Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s Top Priorities for 2019 which are to support the expansion of respite services to family caregivers, including military caregivers, who are a critical component of a patient’s care team and provide 24/7 support for patients with complex conditions,” Hamlett said.

Estimates of this support have been valued at more than $450 billion per year in uncompensated, home-based care. Respite care has emerged as an essential lifeline to the military caregivers, who often face a myriad additional health care complexities. Respite care programs provide short-term relief to caregivers, allowing them to recharge so they can continue to provide effective, high-quality care to the nation’s wounded service members and veterans. Currently, military caregivers must navigate a complex maze of options when it comes to respite care.

Program requirements have a wide variation across the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Health and Human Services.

“We encourage the Senate to pass the Lifespan Respite Care Reauthorization Act (H.R. 2035/S.995) to fund and continue to build coordinated respite services for family caregivers,” Hamlett said. “However, we realize this is only a temporary fix. For long term viability, we ask that both chambers take an active role in reforming our nation’s approach to respite care.”

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation invited congressional offices to join the foundation for a roundtable discussion to explore ways to improve respite care options for the nation’s military caregivers.

The foundation also called for more funding for research studying children in military caregiving households. Over the years, the subject of military children – and the impact of caregiving on their development and growth – has emerged as a top priority for military and veteran organizations. Children in these households have had their childhoods impacted by war, repeated deployments and combat injuries that may span decades. Very little is known about the long-term impacts of growing up in these environments. A 2017 research blueprint, commissioned by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, and conducted by the RAND Corporation, revealed that no published studies exist exploring the impact of military caregiving on children.

The foundation urged Congress to take action and increase funding for long-term research efforts that will evaluate the health care needs of children in military caregiving households. As an initial step, they asked for an initial hearing focused on the current research needs of this unique population.

The foundation also supported The Transparency and Effective Accountability Measures for Veteran Caregivers Act or Senate Bill 2216, introduced by Sens. Gary Peters, D-Miss., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. This act suggested several steps to improve the VA Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers. These improvements include ensuring all caregivers are named in the veterans’ medical record and extending benefits for at least 90 days after sending a termination letter for veterans deemed no longer clinically eligible for the program. The legislation is consistent with many of the recommended reforms the VA Federal Advisory Committee on Veterans’ Families, Caregivers and Survivors, chaired by Sen. Elizabeth Dole, has put forth to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie.

According to the foundation, “We have heard directly from our caregivers that these challenges need to be addressed, and we urge Senators to join Senators Peters and Blackburn as co-sponsors on this legislation.”

Taking part in this historical week of advocacy left its mark on Hamlett.

“I had the honor to spend an evening with former Sen. Elizabeth and Bob Dole in their home with the Dole Caregiver Fellows. It was inspirational to see so many military caregivers come together in one place to be able to speak about issues we were having and receive so much emotional support for one another. We strive every day to ensure our veterans receive the best care they deserve for serving our country. They fought for our freedom now it is time to support them for everything they have sacrificed as well as support those that care for them daily,” she said.

Hamlett and the other Fellows also enjoyed a tour of the White House.

“My veteran husband was unable to attend due to medical reasons,” she said. “I owe a big thank you to my mom that came in our home to take over my caregiving duties while I was gone.”

Hamlett’s passion for the caregivers of wounded and disabled veterans culminated in a week of sharing and camaraderie with others to focus on the bigger picture.

“This week was clearly a once in a lifetime experience,” she said. “I had the honor to meet with former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, Dr. Raul Ruiz, U.S. Representative for California’s 36th Congressional District, take a tour of the White House and many more amazing adventures, along with meeting some hard working military and veteran caregivers from all over the United States. We discussed many different programs that are needed for military and veteran caregivers that care for our veterans daily. I will cherish these memories forever and continue to advocate.”

For more information on the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, visit them on the web at www.elizabethdolefoundation.org.

To learn more about the Caregiver Healing Foundation, visit https://caregiver-healing.org.

Diane Sieker can be reached by email at dsieker@reedermedia.com.