When we talk about caregivers for veterans, most people think about spouses. But the children of veterans also shoulder a heavy burden.
To support those families, Hidden Heroes, a campaign started by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation to provide much-needed support to military and veteran caregivers, has announced a new initiative just for kids: "Hidden Helpers."
Ten-year-old Gabby Rodriguez and her sister Ava, 7, help take care of their dad: They are two of more than 2 million children living with a disabled veteran parent and helping with caregiving.
"I have to do the stuff Mom does like, "Hey, Dad, did you take your meds?" Gabby told TODAY anchor Savannah Guthrie on Tuesday's "The Cost of Care" series. "If we go out to eat, I'm like, 'Did you bring your wallet? Did you bring your keys? Did you lock the door?'"
In 2007, their dad, Jorge, a Navy corpsman attached to a Marine unit in Iraq, was wounded from two IED explosions, which left him with a traumatic brain injury, seizures and post-traumatic stress disorder.
His wife, Jessica, quit her job as a hospice nurse to care for Jorge full time.
"You try so hard to protect your kids from everything," Jessica Rodriguez told TODAY. "You don't want them to see their dad any way other than a hero or, you know, being able to walk and talk and play and dance with them."
Hidden Heroes aims to amplify the voices of military caregiver children and enhance the support services available to them.
The girls understand that their dad will have good days and bad days for the rest of his life.
"We ask, 'What's the weather like today?'" Gabby told Savannah.
Sister Ava explained, "If he says, 'It's sunny,' we know he's happy. But if he says, 'It's stormy and rainy,' we know he's not feeling really good."
The Rodriguezes have found help through Hidden Heroes, which connects them with resources for the whole family, like "Gallop NYC" in Queens, New York, which provides therapeutic horseback riding for veterans and their families.
"These kids need support. They need the ability to connect with other kids like them. They need to know that they're not alone," Jessica Rodriguez told TODAY. "When your kids can tell you they're happy or they meet other military families and they can say, 'Yeah, me too. And let me show you what can help,' that's where the moment says to me that we have made it as a community."