Former Sen. Elizabeth Dole is founder and chair of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.
The military community rightly heralded first lady Jill Biden's recent announcement that she will re-launch Joining Forces -- the initiative she co-founded in 2011 with then-first lady Michelle Obama to unite the nation behind those who serve.
The return of Joining Forces will not only strengthen a military community strained by the demands of maintaining national security during a global pandemic, it will serve as a reminder of what we can accomplish as a nation if we rediscover our ability to work together.
At its inception, Joining Forces was a welcomed government program as it did not attempt to compete with nonprofit and private organizations. Rather, it brought together the capabilities of every sector to address the most complicated challenges facing the military and veterans' communities.
Obama and Biden established media relationships to reach vulnerable veterans who may have lost their connection to the Department of Veterans Affairs health system. Hundreds of corporate partnerships generated jobs for more than half a million veterans and military spouses. Wellness programs for service members and their families were developed to address skyrocketing rates of post-traumatic stress and emotional strain. They also worked with children's entertainment to educate young people about military service and the experience of military kids.
I saw the power of Joining Forces through my own work with military caregivers -- the 5.5 million Americans caring at home for loved ones wounded, injured or made ill through their military service. In 2014, my foundation brought the military caregiver crisis to the national forefront with the release of the first comprehensive national evidence-based research ever conducted on this population. Our study found that military caregivers suffer depression, anxiety, family strain, financial struggles and legal challenges at higher rates than their civilian peers. At the same time, these hidden heroes provide upward of $14 billion of unpaid veteran care annually, a cost that would otherwise be borne by the nation.
Obama and Biden were among the first national leaders to respond to our report. A week after the study's release, Biden stood on stage in the East Room of the White House, looking out over an audience of military caregivers and assured them, "You are doing your part to meet our sacred obligation to those who serve, and it is up to us to give you the support you need and rightly deserve."
Joining Forces immediately established a place for caregivers at the core of its mission.
Today, it is nested perfectly in the Biden administration's holistic approach to rehabilitating veterans' care in America. President Joe Biden's outstanding nominee for VA secretary, Denis McDonough, has outlined a vision for mobilizing agencies across all of government to strengthen the veterans' community. In announcing the return of Joining Forces, Dr. Biden is leading an effort to activate the whole of society, asking each of us to do our part to stand with those who serve.
The military landscape has changed since Joining Forces launched 10 years ago. However, America's 18 million veterans and their caregivers still struggle with physical injuries and ailments, substance abuse, emotional distress, unemployment and suicide. The rise of the pandemic, which has sickened nearly 200,000 patients in the VA health system, has only worsened these challenges.
Our veterans, families and caregivers will benefit from the return of Joining Forces, and our nation will as well. At a time when so many of us have been left to wonder what can heal our country's hardening divisions, Dr. Biden is poised to show us. As we write a new chapter in American history, let us embrace the spirit of Joining Forces, restore our ability to work together, and rally around those who selflessly served us all.
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