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Having seen first-hand the daunting challenges that military caregivers face, Elizabeth Dole is determined to spotlight their stories and seek solutions to the long-term needs they face.
Dole, a former U.S. senator and the wife of former Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, was joined by Tom Hanks and military wife Jessica Allen on TODAY Tuesday to announce the creation of the Hidden Heroes campaign to assist the nearly six million military caregivers in the U.S.
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"The thing that I can't stress enough is that there are military caregivers in your neighborhood,'' Hanks told Matt Lauer. "It will be astounding how a tiny bit of help can alter the lives of those people."
Created by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and supported by Comcast NBC Universal, Hidden Heroes aims to use its website to provide a directory of the nation's best caregiver support programs, a community where caregivers can connect, an online school dedicated to educating military caregivers, access to free financial advice and a place to view testimonials spotlighting the service of friends, family and loved ones taking care of their service member.
Hanks is serving as campaign chair, and he was joined on Tuesday by Allen, the wife of Army Staff Sgt. Chaz Allen. Jessica has become Chaz's full-time caregiver since he had both legs amputated above the knee and lost one of his elbows after stepping on an IED in 2011 while serving in Afghanistan. She also helps home school the couple's two daughters, Deryn, 14, and Ryann, 11, at their house in McMinnville, Tennessee.
"As an infantry wife, you prepare for one of two options - they come home safe, or they come home in a box,'' she told Lauer. "The Army does not prepare you for the in-between, and the in-between never ends. Every single day I have to think about what my day's going to look like and pray that my husband doesn't further injure himself."
Dole witnessed the struggles and challenges faced by military caregivers when her husband, who was badly wounded in World War II, spent 11 months being treated for an illness at Walter Reed Army Medical Center five years ago. Seeing the hurdles faced by military wives and mothers caring for their injured veterans prompted her to create the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and now the Hidden Heroes campaign.
"I was there day in and day out and what I saw just opened my eyes to something I had no idea about,'' Dole told Lauer. "I became much more familiar with the kinds of challenges that they had. Worrying about how they were going to manage the legal, the financial matters for the family, coordinating across health care systems with different structures - I had to do something about it."
As part of Hidden Heroes, 50 cities nationwide have also given their commitment to become caregiver-friendly to military families by creating a committee of public and private organizations to address their unmet needs.
Hanks, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role in the World War II film "Saving Private Ryan," and produced the HBO military-themed miniseries "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific," noted how simply giving a caregiver a ride, helping with groceries or offering him or her a job can make all the difference in the lives of military families.
"I've covered some of this turf in my fake life as an actor who puts on other people's clothes, and the emotional impact of a number of those jobs, it's never left,'' Hanks said. "It comes down to a chance to serve and I think help out in a very pragmatic and understandable way."
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