Cathedral Age: How does your experience as head of the Red Cross and cabinet secretary in two administrations inform your current work?
I’ve learned over 40+ years of public service that to reach major breakthroughs you have to leverage resources, encourage collaboration, invest in innovation, break down silos, and shine a light on success. It’s how we got airbags in cars and how we transformed an antiquated WWII system at the American Red Cross for collecting, testing, and distributing one-half of the nation’s blood supply. It isn’t easy to imagine that formula working in Washington, D.C., these days, where collaboration is hard to find, but it’s what I’m relying on in my work supporting veterans and military families.
Two years ago, inspired by my experience as a caregiver for my husband Bob and the stories I heard from countless more across America, I launched Caring for Military Families: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation. Our mission is to raise awareness of the enormous challenges faced by America’s military and veteran caregivers and to strengthen the services and support afforded to them.
These are America’s hidden heroes. Many become instant around-the-clock caregivers when their wounded warriors come home, often with multiple injuries and illnesses—physical and emotional. Some are tending to the daily activities of feeding, bathing, and dressing their wounded. They’re also administering medications, coordinating care across several health systems, providing emotional support, handling legal and financial matters, and assisting with rehabilitation—often while raising children. Their stories inspire me to challenge the nation to support them, for this is a societal issue requiring a strong, diverse national response.
Cathedral Age: Rarely have veterans received the attention or respect most Americans say that they deserve. Why have we had such misalignment between policies and priorities?
Over time, the gap between the military and civilian populations has grown tremendously. Today less than one percent of the nation’s population are protecting our freedom and security, a smaller percentage than at any time since WWII. That means that fewer and fewer Americans have any personal connection to the military or a veteran as we endure the longest period of war in the history of our nation.
Cathedral Age: What major issues face veterans as they return home?
We now know that a veteran’s return home is a dual transition—for them and for their families. Some 60,000 service members suffer from physical injuries and approximately 725,000 with the invisible wounds of war, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and traumatic brain injury. These illnesses can affect a wounded warrior for years, even a lifetime. They also affect their families in ways they could not have imagined when they sent their loved ones off to war.
The most effective way to impact the health, recovery, and well-being of our wounded warriors is investing in strong, well-supported caregivers. We’ve commissioned the rand Corporation to provide the first comprehensive, evidence-based study on the challenges and needs of military and veteran caregivers. The results will be announced during our Military and Veterans Caregivers Week, laying the groundwork for a national strategy.
Cathedral Age: How can communities of faith help veterans and military families?
I believe faith communities can play a strong role, and we’re actively seeking their help right now. Houses of worship across the country can serve as safe, peaceful sanctuaries for veterans and their families to seek help and respite from their daily struggles adjusting to a new life. That means we need to empower interfaith leaders by providing them with information about the needs of veterans and their families, so they can raise awareness and support these issues through their sermons, programs, materials, and ministries. My foundation is reaching out to communities of faith across the country to encourage special services and activities during Military and Veteran Caregivers Week, March 24–30, 2014.
Cathedral Age: Soon, women will be entering combat. What are your views on this development?
I’ve fought all my life for the advancement of women in our society and have broken a few glass ceilings myself. I believe that as long as female service members can meet the qualifications required for the positions they seek, they should be afforded the same opportunities of service as their male counterparts. Open advancement for all makes our military healthier, stronger, and more representative of the civilian society it protects. Not every spouse serving as a military caregiver is a woman. We have a lot of wonderfully dedicated husbands supporting veterans as they return home.
Cathedral Age: How do you keep yourself spiritually healthy?
Fundamental to my life is the strong personal relationship I have with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I strive to be a disciple of Christ in my daily life. That means I pray throughout my day and constantly give thanks. If I’m heading into a particularly important initiative, I ask for strength and guidance. I think it’s important we have that kind of active relationship with the Lord. I also have a daily devotional time and keep my Bible handy at my desk. Throughout the years, I’ve been blessed with opportunities to share my faith in what Jesus did for us on the cross.
Cathedral Age: The Cathedral is called to be a spiritual home for the nation. from your perspective, how can the Cathedral live out that mission?
I think the good Lord calls each of us to live out our faith life in unique ways, and certainly the Cathedral, located in the nation’s capital, has a unique role to play. I believe the Cathedral’s role as a convener and gathering place for the nation to celebrate and mourn is deeply important. I remember President Reagan’s funeral, as many people do, for the sacred and powerful ways it memorialized our fortieth president, while also celebrating the strength and diversity of our nation. Having a sacred place where the country can gather at important moments in our history or on special holidays such as Veterans Day reminds us all of the faith upon which our nation was founded.
Senator Elizabeth Dole is the founder of Caring for Military Families: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation. She served as Secretary of Transportation under Ronald Reagan and Secretary of Labor under George H.W. Bush before becoming president of the American Red Cross. She then served as North Carolina’s first female senator from 2003 to 2009.
To learn more about Senator Dole and her work, visit elizabethdolefoundation.org.