By Elaine Sanchez, American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, D.C. – First Lady Michelle Obama announced a series of measures intended to increase the nation’s support for caregivers of wounded, ill and injured service members.
Joined by Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis and senior military leaders, Obama announced the Labor Department’s proposal to expand military family leave protections under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
These proposed rules will, in part, enable more military family members to take the time they need to care for their loved ones without fear of career repercussions, the first lady said.
“We want to recognize the extraordinary dedication, sacrifice and service of our nation’s caregivers, not simply with words, but with deeds,” Obama told the audience gathered at the Labor Department here. “These are men and women and children who will do anything for their loved ones, no matter the cost, no matter the sacrifice, no matter the consequences.”
The Labor Department’s proposed expansions of the Family and Medical Leave Act will help more caregivers of troops and veterans tend to their wounded loved ones, Solis explained. FMLA, enacted in 1993, enables eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons.
“Many service members come home stressed, ill and injured,” Solis said. “They need attention, care and support from the people that love them the most. And we’ve got an obligation as a nation to make that possible.”
The proposal will, in part:
– Extend the 26-week unpaid leave entitlement to family members caring for recent veterans with a serious injury or illness incurred in the line of duty, including conditions that may arise up to five years after leaving the military;
– Allow family members to take time off from work before, during or after a spouse, child or parent’s deployment to tend to service-related matters, such as military briefings or making financial and legal arrangements; and
– Increase the amount of time an employee may take to spend with a loved one who is on rest or recuperation leave from five days to up to 15 days.
These proposed rules, the first lady noted, will ease family members’ minds as they care for their wounded loved ones. Caregivers will be able to stay near a loved one in a hospital longer, and will be on hand as they transition home – “all without worrying about whether they will lose their job.”
Obama recalled a story of a mom who became caregiver to her Marine son last summer. The Marine had lost the lower part of both of his legs after stepping on a homemade bomb in Afghanistan. Through his recovery, the first lady said, the Marine’s mother was there, feeding him meals and sleeping by his bedside.
Obama recalled what this mom told her: “All I cared about was knowing he was alive. I knew we could figure the rest out.” The FMLA, the first lady noted, gave this caregiver mom the flexibility and time she needed to “figure it out.”
Another caregiver, RyAnne Noss, was on hand to recount her caregiving journey.
Noss’ husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Scott Noss, was injured in February 2007 when the Chinook helicopter he was riding in crashed in the mountains of southern Afghanistan. He was on his eighth deployment.
Of the 14 survivors, he was injured the worst, Noss said, suffering a severe traumatic brain injury that left him mentally conscious but semi-comatose.
Noss, who was pursuing a doctorate degree in chemical engineering at the time, dropped everything to be by his side. He was 100 percent dependent on her, she noted. She fed him, administered his medications and became an advocate for his care. “Along the way,” Noss noted, “I learned how important it was to take care of myself.”
With the support of family and friends, Noss completed her degree at Auburn University. The couple is now home in Alabama, she said.
“I’m proud to have been by Scott’s side through his rehabilitation and proud to have him home now with me where he continues to require around-the-clock care,” she said. “I’m proud to be my husband’s caregiver.”
Noss lauded the measures under way to help caregivers like her. “Today is a great day for every caregiver,” she said. “These announcements from the Department of Labor will help us all to insert some more stability and certainty into our lives, and I can tell you from personal experience, we appreciate all the help. Every little bit counts.”
The Labor Department’s proposal is just a few of many steps the Obama administration is taking to support caregivers, the first lady noted, citing legislation the president signed to help caregivers receive stipends, training, counseling and other assistance. The Defense and Labor departments also have strengthened their caregiver support, she said, working together to support caregivers whose loved ones are dealing with TBIs and post-traumatic stress.
Additionally, she added, the VA has helped caregivers receive health insurance and helps connect them with support coordinators who can direct them to resources.
But the government can’t do it alone, she said, citing examples of how other individuals and organizations are stepping up to help.
Building on successful pilot programs at Fort Belvoir, Va., and Fort Carson, Colo., the USO, Hire Heroes USA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce plan to host 14 career opportunity days focused on the employment of wounded, ill and injured warriors, their spouses and caregivers.
The Chamber of Commerce’s new Military Spouse Business Alliance has committed to hosting a career forum and hiring fair exclusively for wounded warriors, their spouses and caregivers at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., in May.
Finally, Operation Homefront and the Semper Fi Fund, both nonprofit organizations, have added volunteer opportunities that support caregivers and their families to the Joining Forces website.
Americans have an obligation to serve service members and their families as well as they’ve served the nation, the first lady noted.
This need for support, Obama said, is what spurred her and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, to launch the Joining Forces initiative last year. The campaign aims to raise awareness of military families and to rally the nation around them.
“I hope everyone in this country will ask themselves one simple question,” she said, ‘What can I do to support these great military families who have given us all so much.’ That’s the one question we all need to ask.”
Obama said she hopes service members, veterans and their families feel the love and support of their nation. And if they haven’t felt it yet, “I promise you that it’s coming, that I promise you.
“We are going to work every day until every last one of you feels the pride and the honor that this entire country feels,” she said. “As long as we all just keep joining forces to support these amazing families, we will be able to serve all of you as well as you’ve served us.”