An 18-year-old American soldier who went to fight in Vietnam in 1968 — the year of peak deployment —is now 70 years old. In addition to the usual health problems affecting that age group, many Vietnam veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the effects of Agent Orange.
All of this puts them at higher risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19, and puts a tremendous strain on the family members who want to care for them at home.
Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is about to increase the scope of its Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC) to include eligible veterans who suffered serious injury in the line of duty on or before May 7, 1975. Benefits of the program include monthly stipends, medical training and health insurance. The expansion is set to go into effect Oct. 1.
The program originally covered only the approximately 20,000 veterans who left the service after Sept. 11, 2001. As part of the VA Mission Act of 2018, eligible veterans of all eras will eventually be covered.
Vietnam vets need assistance
With the pandemic raging, this expansion is arriving at a crucial time.
Nancy Switzer, of Rochester, N.Y., founding president of the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America, has long pushed for expanding the scope of the program.
“The Caregiver Act is really great for families. Vietnam veterans need assistance,” Switzer says. She is the primary caregiver for her husband, Rick, who lost his leg below the knee while serving in Vietnam. In 2014, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which has spread.
“I retired to take care of Rick. He was having too many problems. For spouses and families, the instinct is to take care of them,” she says, but the experience is draining. “We’re going back and forth to radiation. I just took him for an infusion; it took the whole afternoon.”
When the Caregiver Act was originally instituted, “it was a godsend,” says Linda Spoonster Schwartz, a special adviser to the Vietnam Veterans of American (VVA). “But at the same time we had WWII, Korean and Vietnam veterans who didn’t have that sort of help. They’re aging. By the numbers, there are more people who are pre-9/11” who need caregiver help, she notes.
U.S. military involvement in Vietnam ran from early 1961 until May 1975, with about 2.7 million American men and women serving in the war.
Schwartz is a Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Air Force for nearly 20 years, was commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs and assistant secretary of the VA under President Barack Obama. She credits former Sen. Elizabeth Dole with pushing the expanded law forward to benefit these pre-9/11 veterans.
“She saw a need and went for it,” says Schwartz. Dole heads the Elizabeth Dole Foundation; her husband, former Sen. Robert J. Dole, served in World War II.
Vietnam veterans often suffer health problems that make them especially vulnerable to serious illness if they contract COVID-19.
“A lot of veterans have comorbidity,” which means they have more than one chronic disease or condition, something that multiplies their overall health risk, according to Charles G. Byers, VVA’s advocate chair for veterans’ health care. “So many spouses have called me about this” because they are concerned about putting their spouse into a VA facility during the pandemic, he says.
“We’re letting them know they can take care of their loved one. It’s about keeping the veteran at home, with his loved ones, as long as we possibly can,” says Byers, who was a U.S. Army medic in Vietnam.
Nancy Switzer is adamant about keeping her husband at home. “He’s better off here,” she says.
The Vietnam Veterans of America conducted a five-month-long investigation into coronavirus deaths in VA facilities, issuing a report in August.
“Images of overflowing emergency rooms, body bags stacked on loading docks, refrigerated trucks for morgues, and stories of patients dying without their families triggered memories of our own wartime experiences, and we recognized that, today’s battlefield is the COVID-19 pandemic,” VVA National President John Rowan said in a statement when the report was released.
Details of VA caregiver aid
Byers and Schwartz are conducting seminars around the country to educate people about the details of the newly expanded Caregiver Act.
Caregivers will be eligible to receive up to $2,800 a month for aiding veterans who require assistance with what health professionals call “Activities of Daily Living” (ADL), the basics needed for independent living at home or in the community. That includes help with bathing, dressing, feeding and getting in and out of bed.
The program “saves money in the long run,” according to Byers, because it provides compensation to spouses, parents and other partners of severely injured veterans who would otherwise require expensive care in a facility.
Caregivers also are eligible for medical benefits and training. “Training is a very important part of this,” Schwartz says, because caregivers often suffer from anger, stress and burnout. “Care for the caregiver is especially important. They’re working day in and day out.”
But caregivers who apply will find the program complicated, Byers and Schwartz warn. Even Switzer, who has learned her way around VA regulations, is concerned about negotiating PCAFC. “I think I will apply. I have to look into it more. I think I would be able to receive it,” she says.
Short term respite for vet caregivers
In addition to the PCAFC, a new program from the VA and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation provides a bit of respite for family members who care for veterans during the pandemic.
Under the Respite Relief for Military and Veteran Caregivers program, caregivers can apply to receive approximately 24 hours of respite care from a CareLinx professional to help with bathing, companionship, cooking, medication reminders, mobility assistance, transportation and other activities. The program will furnish more than 40,000 hours of nonmedical home care to more than 16,000 veterans.