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‘NOW’ Looks at Helping the Families that Care for Vets

November 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In an excerpt from the PBS program "NOW," Maria Hinojosa examines the support system in place for family members providing the around-the-clock care many returning war veterans often require.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: help for family members caring for troops critically injured in war. That’s the subject of tonight’s edition of the PBS program “NOW.”

In this excerpt, correspondent Maria Hinojosa highlights one family’s struggle.

ED EDMUNDSON, father, Ed Edmundson: Good job. Head up, shoulders back.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Ed Edmundson has been taking care of his son Eric for four years now. Eric was among the first wave of veterans to come back from Iraq with a traumatic brain injury, or TBI. He had been blown up by a homemade bomb.

Eric’s father says the VA hospital system wasn’t prepared to treat the thousands of soldiers returning with these kinds of injuries. After Eric got home, he spent three months in a VA trauma hospital in Richmond, Virginia.

ED EDMUNDSON: And, in that three months, he just went downhill. He lost weight. He got ill. He — he just — he essentially got to the point, in my opinion, that he gave up. He gave up.

MARIA HINOJOSA: For Eric’s family, the final straw came when Ed found his son in a hallway at the VA facility during what was being called therapy.

ED EDMUNDSON: They called it hallway therapy there. It’s good for him to be watching things going on and that stuff. But Eric was slumped over in his chair drooling. Call it what you will; it wasn’t therapy.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Ed and his wife, Beth, were shocked to find that the VA has no long-term care and rehabilitation facilities for the increasing number of vets with brain injuries.

They brought Eric home, and both quit their jobs to be able to work with him full-time. They fought successfully to place their son in a private facility in Chicago. Eric arrived unable to move his limbs.

ED EDMUNDSON: Now we’re going to walk over to the chair.

MARIA HINOJOSA: But his family says that, over the next seven months, there was a remarkable transformation. With assistance, he even learned to walk again.

Brigadier General Loree Sutton is in charge of creating programs to help families impacted by TBI.

There are estimates that it could cost billions — not millions, but billions of dollars — to treat all of the service members who are coming home with traumatic brain injury. Is that feasible?

BRIG. GEN. LOREE SUTTON, military health system, U.S. Army: As far as I’m concerned, as a nation, when we send our treasure, our sons and daughters to war, we owe them and their families whatever it takes to help them recover, to rehabilitate, to reintegrate, to live lives of purpose, passion and meaning.

MARIA HINOJOSA: General Sutton has created a training program for family caregivers to learn the often complicated tasks involved with caring for a TBI patient.

But will they get paid for this work? Earlier this year, Democratic Senator Daniel Akaka introduced a bill to help caregivers like Ed and Beth Edmundson. It would allow each severely wounded veteran of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to designate one caregiver. That person would get medical training, health insurance, and a stipend of about $10 an hour, as long as the VA determines their care is medically necessary.

Advocates say it’s money that would otherwise be spent on nursing home staff.

JIM LEHRER: And, yesterday, the Senate gave a hand to people like the Edmundsons. It unanimously passed a $4 billion measure to provide benefits to families who care for severely injured veterans from the Iraq and Afghan wars. The House has passed similar legislation. Next, the two bills go to a conference committee.