06 September 2011


Story first appeared in USA TODAY.
With the touch of a button, Russ Marek's easy chair lifts him to a standing position.
He takes specially fitted crutches and walks down the hallway of his home in Viera, Fla. Then with a slow unsteady gait, but with a sense of accomplishment and smiling, he walks back with the help of only one crutch.
Marek, a staff sergeant, was serving in Iraq with the 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, when he was critically wounded Sept. 16, 2005, by a roadside bomb. His injuries included the loss of his right leg and right arm, brain injury and burns over 20% of his body.
Marek, 40, said he slowly has learned to compensate and do more for himself. But he still cannot live on his own without assistance.
The Mareks have been approved for the VA's new Family Caregiver program for post-9/11 veterans that provides benefits for the first time to designated family caregivers of eligible severely wounded service members.
In a speech Tuesday to the American Legion Convention, President Obama talked about the caregivers program as part of his plan to help veterans.
He told the Legionnaires that we're giving unprecedented support to our wounded warriors, especially those with a Michigan traumatic brain injury, and thanks to the veterans and caregivers legislation he signed into law, we've started training caregivers so that they can receive the skills and the stipends that they need to care for their loved ones.
The program includes monthly stipends, health insurance and other benefits for the family caregiver. It also provides counseling and travel benefits when the wounded veteran must go for specialized treatment and other services. Quarterly visits from VA social workers help to ensure the veterans are getting appropriate care.
Mearlene Filkins, caregiver support coordinator for the VA Orlando office, which covers several Central Florida counties, including Brevard, said in the past, caregivers had been seen in the shadows of the veteran.
Filkins said that eligible caregivers could receive between $400 and $2,000 per month based on need, whether they provide full-time or part-time care, and based on what it would cost to pay a home healthcare aide in the area.
Since the program started in May, one additional family in Brevard besides the Mareks has been approved for the program and another is awaiting approval. The Orlando area has seen 40 applications, with 21 approved so far, according to the VA.
Of the 2,003 applications the VA received from across the nation as of Aug. 25, 907 have been approved with an average monthly stipend of $1,800.
The program recognizes the efforts of family caregivers, some who have lost income, insurance and other benefits because they left jobs to care for their loved ones. The program helps compensate for that, and allows the veteran to be cared for in the comfort of home by a family member.
Rose Marek, Russ’s mother and caregiver, said the benefits are a great help, especially to younger struggling families.
She and her husband, Paul, have been caring for their son since he was injured about five years ago. The program will help them cover their own insurance and other expenses they incur while caring for their son.
She said it might help her and her husband do something they want to do without putting a strain on their budget. Shee added that to a young couple, it's going to mean everything, if a spouse has to quit work and stay home, it puts a terrible financial strain on that young couple.
Rose Marek said she heard about the new VA Caregiver program from a veterans' organization.
The Mareks take turns, splitting time between their home in Satellite Beach and their son's home in Viera. Though Russ Marek pushes himself to do as much as he can on his own, he needs their help.
Marek walked with crutches to the kitchen cabinets and slowly showed how he could grip a plastic cup with his left hand, which is missing most of his thumb.
Despite the assistance he requires for some basic needs, Russ Marek remains upbeat and accepting of his condition as he struggles to improve. He sometimes pushes to rely less on the walker and crutches to get around.
While many injured veterans are like Marek and require help from caregivers, some resist help with day-to-day activities and can get along without assistance.
John Stearns, a 22-year-old Marine lance corporal who was critically injured on his birthday, Sept. 14, 2010 in Afghanistan when an explosion tore away his right foot and shattered his left leg, doesn't want assistance. He is undergoing treatment and therapy at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and is expected to be there until February.
Stearns, of Palm Bay, was on foot patrol in a field when he stepped on a device that triggered an explosive. He had plans of continuing in the Marine Corps for four years. Now his plans are to attend the University of Central Florida to study radiology, a career he became interested in after undergoing many X-rays while hospitalized. He may be seeking additional assistance from a Chicago brain injury lawyer.
Still in therapy, it will be months before Stearns knows how well he'll do on his own.
Filkins, from the VA, said the needs of each applicant to the program are evaluated.
She said the response she has seen has been very positive, and families have been very happy.

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