Amid Pandemic Pressures, Major Organizations Commit Support for Military Caregivers

Jason Ehrhart and Pam Estes
Wounded warrior Jason Ehrhart and his mother and caregiver, Pam Estes, have a daily routine that helps him live at home. Photo via Wounded Warrior Project

It's difficult caring full-time for a spouse, sibling or adult child with lifelong disabilities as the result of combat injuries or service-related illnesses.

But during a pandemic that has upended carefully crafted routines, such as steady medical appointments, therapy and classes, the challenges facing military caregivers have become more acute.

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Former Army infantryman Jason Ehrhart needs assistance dressing, bathing, feeding himself, and moving in and out of his wheelchair after losing a leg and suffering burns and a brain injury in a bomb blast in Iraq in 2004.

His parents, Pam and Mike Estes, are with him every day, providing that care. But beginning in mid-March, Ehrhart's physical therapy, classes and outings stopped as a result of COVID-19, and any chance for either parent to catch a break disappeared.

"The other day, he went horseback riding for the first time since March, and I had three hours to myself. I was so overly excited about having a cup of tea. That three hours and that cup of tea regenerated me for the next week," Pam Estes said.

More help could be on the way: The Wounded Warrior Project announced Tuesday that it is dedicating $7 million to assist caregivers, including giving $3,000 grants to the caregivers of more than 700 veterans enrolled in the nonprofit's program for the most seriously injured post-9/11 veterans.

The announcement follows a partnership unveiled earlier this month between the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide 24 hours of respite services for full-time caregivers.

Under that program, Respite Relief for Military and Veterans Caregivers, those who care full-time for a service member or veteran in their homes can apply for relief, which will be provided by CareLinx professionals.

The program is initially being offered in portions of California, Florida and Texas.

"Caregivers charged with caring for our nation's veterans face new challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic," VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement announcing the partnership.

"They have become increasingly isolated and are hindered from getting reliable, outside help. This program provides caregivers compassionate and needed relief during this stressful time," he added.

In addition to the $2.2 million in grants tied to Wounded Warrior Project's Independence Program, the nonprofit is giving $1 million to the Elizabeth Dole Foundation to pay for 35,000 hours of respite services for military and veterans caregivers, and has set aside an additional $4.2 million to improve programs for caregivers, emphasizing wellness, self-care, mental health treatment and respite care, according to Alex Balbir, director of WWP's Warrior Care Network and independence services.

"We are witnessing some immediate challenges that have been exacerbated by COVID-19, and there needs to be greater awareness of the long-term needs of our caregivers," Balbir said. "This initiative really focuses on those hidden heroes."

WWP's Independence Program is designed to help post-9/11 veterans with moderate to severe brain injuries, spinal cord injuries or neurological conditions remain in their homes with access to services to aid in recovery and good health.

According to the organization, 62% of those veterans need assistance from a designated caregiver 40 hours a week or more. Those caregivers will receive the $3,000 grants, which they can use for their own wellness.

"We absolutely recognize that the success of the Independence Program is predicated on the caregiver, so it's important that we take care of them. It's as important that we take care of them as we take care of the warrior," said Lyndsay Tkach, deputy director of independence services at WWP.

Ehrhart was 19 years old when the Humvee he was riding in struck a roadside bomb, resulting in the death of his sergeant and his own severe injuries. He was in a coma for months after the accident, and his parents began exploring locations where he could live and work on recovery.

After a bed became available at a VA facility, the couple went to tour it. But they ultimately decided the facility, which mostly served Vietnam-era veterans, was not for their young son. They have cared for him ever since, watching him improve and, during the pandemic, ensuring he didn't regress without the services he normally receives as an Independence Program participant.

"We've been to enough physical therapy appointments with him and knew what kind of stuff they did, and just rolled up our sleeves and jumped in," Pam Estes said.

Jason also took online classes through Wounded Warrior Project, such as writing, art and music therapy. Pam said she had been working to get him to write his name; as the result of classes offered online during the pandemic, he made his parents Mother's and Father's Day cards.

"We didn't think for a moment Jason was going to be able to participate ... and we were blown away by what he could do," Pam Estes said.

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation hopes it will be able to expand its military and veterans caregiver respite program beyond the initial three states, and staff said the WWP donation should help that effort.

The foundation also is pursuing partnerships with other organizations to enhance the program.

"This is what happens when public and private sectors come together. This is so important and such an amazing resource we are happy to offer," said Rashi Venkataraman Romanoff, the foundation's vice president of programs and partnerships.

More information on Wounded Warrior Project programs can be found on the group's website.

To learn more about the Elizabeth Dole Foundation's respite care program for military and veterans caregivers and apply, check out its Hidden Heroes site.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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