The Vail Veterans Program was founded in 2004 to provide rehabilitative sports programs to severely wounded warriors and their families from across the nation. One of the outcomes of the program has been the increased awareness of and bond with the caregivers of these wounded service members. These caregivers — many whom are women — have dedicated their lives to providing compassionate care to their loved ones. The journey of the healing process for a wounded warrior will last a lifetime, as it will for their caregivers. The selflessness and dedication of these caregivers is truly inspirational, exceptional and unwavering. Programs such as the Vail Veterans Program help reconnect families, and it is our goal to help those families remain strong by giving them life-changing experiences.
The topic of women in the military will be explored at The Women’s Foundation of Colorado’s Vail Valley luncheon Friday at the Vail Marriott Mountain Resort. Journalist and author Helen Thorpe will be joined by three female veterans profiled in her new book, “Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War.”
Many caregivers’ lives are changed while attending the Vail Veterans Program, particularly women who support wounded veterans and give selfless kindness and patience to their loved ones. A woman named Lisa attended the summer 2014 family program last week. Her husband suffered a traumatic brain injury and is unable to speak, along with being paralyzed on one side of his body. For two years he has been in and out of hospitals receiving treatment for his injury, with Lisa constantly at his side. Their July 22 arrival in Vail marked their first time away from the hospital since his injury. The first day she was very unsure of what activities they could participate in because of his physical disabilities, not to mention his own personal apprehension. The second day they went horseback riding — an activity therapists and doctors told him he would be unable to do. Lisa shared with us that once he got on the horse, she saw him smile for one of the first times since his injury. They discovered that equine therapy will help them both greatly as they move forward with his recovery.
Women’s earnings matter to Colorado families, and many women who are caregivers often do so with personal and professional sacrifices. Research from The Women’s Foundation of Colorado shows that in one-fifth of married couple households with dependent children, women are the main or co-breadwinner and contribute at least half of household earnings. Women are also responsible for the lion’s share of unpaid family work. Since one in two workers in Colorado is female, it’s even more likely that mothers who have dependent children, in addition to being caregivers for wounded warriors, are in the workforce. In Colorado, 93 percent of women working part-time report they are doing so because they have child care problems or other family or personal obligations.
Several years ago, I had the honor of meeting Tracy Keil, the spouse of a wounded warrior who, just 43 days after they were married, was shot in the neck by a sniper in Iraq and became a quadriplegic. Tracy and Matt have become alumni of the Vail Veterans Program and personal friends. Tracy is one example of a hidden hero whose ultimate goal is to get her husband Matt through each day and together find a “new normal” with their two young children.
“There are days I miss having a paycheck and my own money and my own independence,” said Tracy Keil. “But I wouldn’t trade that to not have Matt in my life! So sometimes I think it’s about perspective.”
Powerful words coming from a young woman whose life has been changed forever.
While a reduction in paid work may make economic sense for women at a single point in time given the high cost of child care and the fact that men often have higher earnings, the research from The Women’s Foundation shows it depresses women’s lifetime earnings – which, in turn, can hinder their capacity to support themselves in retirement. These are the kinds of tough decisions caregivers must make. Without significant investments in child care, school hours aligned with the working day, flexible work schedules, and better caregiving supports for the elderly and adults in need of care, families simply may be unable to put more hours into the labor market.
Our program empowers caregivers like Lisa and Tracy to realize that despite seemingly dire circumstances, there is hope for the future. There are more than 1 million of these military caregivers who work tirelessly to provide emotional and physical support to our American heroes. These caregivers are America’s hidden heroes.
Cheryl Jensen is the founder and executive director of the Vail Veterans Program. She has lived in the Vail Valley with her husband Bill for 15 years. She has a passion for giving back to the community in which she lives.