There are 5.5 million veteran caretakers in the United States, including spouses, parents, family members and friends who find themselves as the primary care provider for a loved one after a military injury.
In Pittsburgh Friday morning, former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin and an array of local military caretakers announced a national initiative to provide support to these "hidden heroes."
Dole says these caretakers often face physical and emotional burdens they're unequipped to tackle alone.
"They need flexible work, as many of them are the sole breadwinner for the family," Dole said. "They're raising children, and trying to handle so many different responsibilities. Many of them just need training as a caregiver."
According to a report conducted for the foundation, military caregivers provide $14 billion in unpaid labor each year.
Theresia Ditto, of Hampton County, is a caretaker for her husband, who was in the Marine Corps for 12 years. After his service, he was left with PTSD, knee and back injuries and a traumatic brain injury that left him with short term memory loss.
Ditto had to drop out of college to provide care for her husband and young children, and says the emotional toll of being a caretaker is not spoken about enough.
"Without awareness, problems like secondary PTSD that a lot spouses end up getting, are never going to come into the light," she said.
The event in Pittsburgh was to brainstorm long-term solutions for supporting military caretakers. Ditto and two other local caregivers shared their stories with the audience that also included Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.
"The opportunity to really change people's lives is what healthcare is all about, and care within a home is critically important," said Joe Robinson, senior vice president of Philips Health Systems Solutions, which partnered with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation for the event.
This year, Pittsburgh is launching a storytelling campaign to share military caretakers' experiences. According to Dole, caregivers often suffer from depression, heart disease and immune problems because of the stress the role causes. With adequate support, she says veterans and their caregivers can get better together.
"The single most important factor in the recovery or the improvement of a wounded warrior is a strong, well-supported caretaker," Dole said.