Facing homelessness, Pam Busenius gave her Iraq War veteran husband an ultimatum: Call the Department of Veterans Affairs and get help for post-traumatic stress disorder, or Pam would take their two kids and leave him.
Today, Pam smiles when she says her husband, Joe, made the “wise decision” to keep their family together.
“It was just a tremendous moment for us. ‘I don’t have to split up my family,’” she remembered thinking.
Busenius, 45, now is working to keep other military families from facing the dire choices she and her husband confronted six years after he came home from Iraq.
Back then, Joe could not hold down a job. Pam could barely earn enough money to pay rent and buy food. Now they’re stable in Lacey, with Joe receiving VA disability benefits and Pam earning a stipend as his caregiver.
This month, she was named one of the first fellows for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s program for military caregivers. The platform connects Busenius with resources for military families and opens doors for her to talk with policymakers.
The foundation announced the fellows in coordination with its release of a 292-page study on military caregivers it commissioned from the RAND Corp.
RAND estimated about 5.5 million friends and family members support wounded, injured and ill veterans and military service members. About 1.1 million of them are caring for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
Caregivers have an increased risk of depression, RAND found. About 12 percent of them spend more than 40 hours a week caring for their veterans.
“I put my wife through living hell,” said Robert Norris of Suquamish. The former Washington National Guard soldier was wounded in the Gulf War while serving in the 101st Airborne Division and hurt again while training for another Iraq deployment. He relies on his wife, Cathlene, to keep him grounded.
Researchers also found a third of caregivers for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans lack health insurance, and tend to miss more than three days of work each month because of their responsibilities at home. RAND estimated the career sacrifices military caregivers make for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans costs about $5.9 billion in economic productivity every year.
“They give their lives, they sacrifice everything to care for our wounded warriors,” said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Based on recommendations in the RAND report, Murray is working to expend the benefits the VA offers military caregivers through a bill introduced last week. It’s a personal campaign for Murray, whose mother cared for her father after he became disabled after serving in World War II.
“No one ever said, ‘What are we doing for mom the caregiver?’ She always asked what am I doing for my kids, what am I doing for my husband,” Murray said.
Her bill, the Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act, would:
• Allow veterans of all eras to receive caregiver benefits. Currently, only caregivers for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are eligible for stipends.
• Permit veterans to transfer Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to their caregivers.
• Expand the kinds of behavioral health diagnoses that would enable a veteran’s caregiver to receive benefits, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The bill’s future is unclear despite the momentum from this month’s RAND report and Dole Foundation events.
In February, Republican senators rejected a bill to overhaul veterans benefits over concern about its $21 billion cost. Some lawmakers also were reluctant to demand more of the VA until it can get a better handle on the commitments it already has.
Murray’s staff on Monday did not have an estimate for what the caregiver bill might cost.
Pam and Joe Busenius attended a news conference for Murray’s bill Monday in Seattle. Joe looked uncomfortable when news cameras started appearing. He left the room abruptly when Pam started to talk about their experiences.
“It’s very hard for Joe to leave the house,” Pam said. She appreciated that he dealt with the traffic and the crowds to support her.
Joe left the Army in 2005 after more than 17 years of service. He seemed different to Pam when he returned from his deployment with the National Guard’s 81st Brigade Combat Team.
“He was not the man I married,” she said. “This was not the man I had my children with.”
She would not say his condition is improving. She also would not take back the years they spent together living month-to-month after his Iraq mission.
“It’s made us a better family,” she said.