As a Veteran Caregiver, Here's What I've Learned About Adversity

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Army Spc. James Smith, left, and his sister Jennifer Mackinday, right, greet two dolphins.
In this photo provided by the Florida Keys News Bureau, Army Spc. James Smith, left, and his sister Jennifer Mackinday, right, greet two dolphins Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018, at Dolphin Research Center in Marathon, Fla (Steve Panariello/Florida Keys News Bureau via AP)

Jennifer Mackinday is a Warriors Speak spokesperson for Wounded Warrior Project. She is also an award-winning author, military caregiver for her brother, Spc. James W. Smith, U.S. Army Retired, and the proud mother of a United States Marine.

The COVID-19 global pandemic is a historic crisis with lasting impact. As the world strives to overcome the outbreak's subsequent effects, a close eye is aimed at communities identified to be at greater risk. In the United States, veterans are one of those groups facing different challenges -- such as reinforced isolation stemming from self-quarantine, and exposure anxiety as the country begins to open up again.

Still, adversity yields opportunities.

It is easy to be pessimistic during a crisis, but we have a responsibility to our nation's wounded warriors and caregivers to grow from these difficult experiences. Despite the suffering this pandemic has caused, I have witnessed the grit of our resilience.

VSOs Took Quick Steps

Veteran service organizations (VSOs) reacted quickly to ensure wounded warriors and their caregivers received valuable programs, tools, and resources while in quarantine. The Elizabeth Dole Foundation had planned to roll out a community-based program this spring to caregivers across the country. Due to physical distancing, the foundation quickly adapted the program and launched Caregiver Community Connection (C3), a web-based series designed to empower, equip, and engage America's military and veteran caregivers online. Powered by Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), C3 highlights virtual community resources available to military caregivers and their families.

Like the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, WWP transitioned programs and services from face-to-face to virtual delivery of programs and services to reach warriors and their families in the comfort of their own homes, including coffee chats, yoga and meditation classes, cooking classes, fitness training and more. In this time of great need, WWP also sent medical supplies to injured veterans and their caregivers enrolled in WWP's Independence Program, which serves our nation's most severely wounded warriors. Equipping these warriors and their caregivers with masks and sanitizer will help them continue to take precautions against infection while receiving care in their homes.

In response to the pandemic's economic devastation, WWP created an emergency relief fund for warriors in financial distress due to the loss of household income. WWP's commitment was for $10 million -- but because of additional donations, the organization distributed checks totaling more than $11 million to more than 11,000 warriors and their families.

Process Improvements

The urgencies of this pandemic forced improved processes in veteran care. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) released a variety of apps like VA Health Video Connect and VA Health Chat. These apps allow warriors to connect directly with their health care teams and mitigate COVID-19 exposure.

Easier access to health care has been a heavy focus in the veteran community. Many warriors already deal with burdens tied to their service-connected injuries when traveling to seek in-person care at VA medical centers and clinics. These telehealth improvements eliminate unnecessary travel and exposure to health risks, decrease appointment wait times, shrink long lines at walk-in clinics, and help break through the monotony of ever-changing appointments.

Advancements in telehealth services can help usher in a new era of how warriors and caregivers can experience the VA health care system.

A New Reality

Warriors such as my brother, who are considered high-risk in this pandemic, need extra support and rely on caregivers for help in their daily lives. I was once reluctant about using telehealth because I had concerns about the quality of care and in-person appointments provided my brother with the opportunity to connect with other warriors and our community.

Through this pandemic, we have innovated and stretched technology to connect and maintain meaningful relationships. In his everyday life, there are things my brother is unable to do with his veteran friends -- outings and activities he can't fully participate in due to his injury limitations. Now, my brother connects with his friends more through these virtual components that give him the luxury of being included.

The truth is that warriors who have severe injuries are connecting more now than ever because face-to-face barriers have been eliminated. I believe these offerings will add color and happiness to the lives of our nation's warriors and caregivers as we move into a world blended with in-person and virtual connections.

Time saved is a valuable resource for warriors and caregivers. Spare time can be designated for self-care, minimizing unnecessary stressors and triggers. Revamped telehealth and at-home virtual offerings are returning families to traditions long since put on the backburners of our fast-paced lives. Now, these traditions are centerstage, whether at the family supper table or in the heart of a more personal community as warriors connect with family and neighbors from a distance.

It is true: we will never be the same. Our new reality serves as a litmus test of our resilience. Therefore, it becomes even more paramount that we take these valuable lessons learned and continue to grow innovative offerings that are more thoughtful, engaging, and safe for our warriors. This pandemic forced a transformation in veteran care, and we have an opportunity to catapult into greatness.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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