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Mark Brown: Program pays veterans’ families to care for disabled soldiers

Updated: October 2, 2013 6:40AM

Joe Santoscoy relies on his wife, Ingrid Meijia, to drive him everywhere, including from where they live in Rogers Park to his medical appointments at the veterans’ hospital in North Chicago.

The federal government, in effect, subsidizes her to do that, which might seem odd until you hear the rest of the story.

As an Army medic in Iraq, Santoscoy for more than a year was part of a team assigned to perform “route clearance,” which meant driving back and forth on that country’s roads looking for bombs.

The bombs, or IEDs — for improvised explosive devices — as the military calls them, might be hidden beneath a dead dog or a bag of garbage at the side of the road. They never really knew, but to survive, they had to be vigilant, and even that was no guarantee.

“We got hit a lot,” Santoscoy, 36, said Friday.

When he returned to the U.S., Santoscoy found himself swerving violently while driving if he encountered trash near the roadway or anything else that made him suspicious.

Part of their training was that when driving under a bridge, the soldiers were never supposed to come out on the same side of the road as the one they entered — to make it harder for somebody trying to ambush them from the opposite end. You can see where that approach might cause a problem on Chicago’s expressways during rush hour.

“It kind of affected me so when I got back I couldn’t really drive any more,” Santoscoy explained. “Traffic just blew my mind.”

Couple that with some of the other effects of his severe post-traumatic stress disorder — he couldn’t remember his doctor appointments and when he did go he couldn’t remember the doctor’s instructions — and you can see why it became necessary for Meijia to give up her own career as a teacher to devote full time as a caregiver to her husband and their children. With him out of work, though, and veterans disability benefits much less than you might guess for somebody in his situation, their problems snowballed.

“We found ourselves in such a financial burden,” Meijia said. “We had to move in with my mother.”

And that’s why they are so thankful for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ two-year-old Family Caregiver Program, which provides support to those at home who take on caring for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seriously injured in the line of duty.

Part of that support is teaching family members the skills they need to better assist the disabled veteran.

But there’s also an emphasis on how to take better care of themselves, including dealing with the emotional burden of their drastically changed circumstances. Support groups are provided, along with mental health treatment, even an opportunity to take a break for a week or two per year.

And yes, a big part of it involves financial assistance, with monthly checks per family averaging between $600 and $2,200 per month, depending on the severity of the injuries and the amount of care required.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said more than 259 families in Illinois and 10,984 nationwide are now participating in the program. He arranged a gathering of six of those families Friday at the Hines VA Hospital in Maywood in part to make sure that others who might benefit have heard of it.

Durbin said the idea for a program to help caregivers originated with fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, and he took it over when she left the Senate to become secretary of state.

There was resistance at first from some who were concerned about the creation of another “entitlement” program, Durbin said. The VA continued to resist the responsibility, even after the law was passed, he said.

But eventually came recognition that supporting family members in this way could actually save the government money while also providing a better level of care.

“Having them at home is lower cost, even with the caregiver,” Durbin said.

For Andrea Simone, whose husband Tony continues to rehabilitate at their home in Joliet from a severe traumatic brain injury suffered when the helicopter he was piloting was shot down in Afghanistan in 2010, it’s just nice to see family members getting recognition for their difficult role.

“Having that support and acknowledgment makes a big difference,” said Simone, whose daily duties to her injured husband make it doubtful she will ever be able to go back to work using her master’s degree in social work.

Ever so gradually, we seem to get smarter as a nation about supporting our disabled veterans. Now if we could just figure out how to stop putting so many of them in that position.


Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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