“Everyone needs to know that there’s a family behind that wounded service member that is also wounded, and that is trying to get better,” said Stephanie Howard.
Howard is a documentarian and she first learned about military caregivers after visiting a wounded veteran program several years ago, where a friend of hers suggested that the stories of their caregivers had been underserved.
“I thought about it and started to do some research, and it was really true. These stories had not been told at all,” she said.
Her new documentary, “The Weight of Honor,” focuses on the lives of caregivers and their families over five years. Howard said she had only planned to document them for a year, but her instincts told her to keep following the story.
That included following the families as they changed, such as divorce or improvements to the veteran’s injury.
“I constantly was saying it has to be about the caregivers. And we would do interviews and we would visit with them as couples and as family members, but we had to really focus on what the caregivers were going through if we were going to tell their story,” she said.
At the beginning of the film, it states that there are 1.1 million family caregivers of post 9/11 veterans. Howard believes that there are probably more caregivers than officially recorded because many families do not recognize themselves as one.
Some of the issues shown in the film was the burnout caregivers get when they are constantly taking care of not only a severely injured veteran, but also trying to raise a family. One caregiver was pregnant with her first child when her husband got injured.
“It would take really all of their time, day and night, and I think that was what really got to them the most,” Howard said.
The intimate nature of caregiving, from bathing to dressing wounds, makes it more likely that a spouse or close family member will be tasked with caring for the veteran instead of a nurse. Howard said that on two occasions, the VA had offered nurse care, but the service member said no because they wanted their spouse to care for them.
“Well the problem with that is that it puts the spouse in a position where she’s a nurse and that really is conflicting with the fact that they have a romantic relationship and that can be really difficult,” she said.
Howard added that one family has told her that now, looking back several years after the injury, they should have had a nurse there to help them.
Luana Schneider, a caregiver for her son U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Scott Stephenson, (Ret.) who lost his leg from an IED, described in the film how he was initially told it would not be possible to receive a prosthetic due to his injury. She and another doctor decided it was possible and after trying several different types of prosthetics over the course of a year and a half, her son finally received his first permanent leg prosthetic.
Howard said all the families she followed in some way struggled to get care from the VA, even though these veterans were among the most severely wounded.
If veterans do not have someone who is advocating on their behalf for care, it could potentially lead to poor outcomes.
“Having a caregiver who is an advocate can make all the difference between a wounded veteran who can stay at home and who can get the help that they need,” Howard said. “Or being a wounded veteran who’s on the streets.”
As the Baby Boomer veterans of the Vietnam War era age and newer veterans from the current conflicts start receiving VA services, the system has become overwhelmed by the need, according to Howard.
“In producing “The Weight of Honor,” I saw many instances that it’s obvious the VA doesn’t have enough resources, either in manpower or money or the number of clinics or any of those things, to really take care of our veterans,” she said.
For audiences, Howard hopes that they walk away “realizing that the caregivers are quite resilient, they’re very brave, they’re very inspiring.”
If you are interested in seeing “The Weight of Honor,” visit the film’s website at www.theweightofhonor.com to see upcoming screening dates, as well as request to screen the film in your community. You can also now download it on Amazon and iTunes.