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We should honor our heroes and the heroes behind them

In honor of Memorial Day, wreaths will be laid on gravestones, and loved ones all across the nation will mourn their losses at solemn observances honoring fallen soldiers. These ceremonies respectfully honor the ultimate sacrifices made by so many of our nation’s heroes.

However, behind closed doors on Memorial Day, as on 364 other days of the year, many more of our nation’s heroes try their best to resume a normal life. Their battle scars linger, but they are lucky to have returned alive.

And yet, while they understand this blessing, they still struggle each day with hardships they never imagined. On any given night, over 1,700 homeless veterans are living on the streets, in parks, under bridges and behind dumpsters in Western New York. Statistics show 172,000 veterans reside in the eight counties of Western New York.

Those who return, with injuries both physical and psychological, lean heavily on loved ones for help. And these caregivers frequently drop everything – including their own health and well-being – to take it on. With little help, they are called on to do it all, serving as nurse, valet, therapist, chef and personal assistant while still trying to take care of their family and home.

And since 9/11, America has seen more caregivers taking care of younger veterans. More than 2.5 million members have served in the global war on terrorism, with about two-thirds deploying before their 29th birthday.

About 50,000 have been seriously wounded in action, and an estimated one in five return with posttraumatic stress or major depression. Many still have their entire lives ahead of them, and a lifetime of obstacles to overcome. But they need help.

While government and community organizations offer many services for returning service members and veterans, there is a surprising lack of services provided to those who care for them. The programs that do exist focus mostly on meeting today’s needs – for food, shelter, work – and less on helping families lay a strong foundation so they can meet their own needs over the long term.

Operation Family Caregiver can help. Provided by Compeer of Greater Buffalo, the OFC offers free and confidential support to the families of those who have served our nation. Specially trained “coaches” help caregivers learn how to overcome the obstacles they face and to manage any challenges that might come along.

The Rosalynn Carter Institute started the program for caregiving, and it is proven to help caregivers become more satisfied with their lives, have fewer health issues and generally become more prepared to take care of their families.

If your family does not mourn a fallen soldier this Memorial Day, I hope you will help our nation’s military caregivers by encouraging those who could use a bit of assistance to benefit from this program. Because everyone who is lucky enough to come home from war should have the chance to live a normal life. Learn more at compeerbuffalo.org/volunteer/operation-family-caregiver/

Michele Brown is executive director of Compeer of Greater Buffalo.