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New VA Advisory Council to Highlight Family, Caregiver Issues

Shundra Johnson, right, and her husband Coast Guard Lt. Sancho Johnson share a moment during the Navy’s wounded warrior training camp for the 2015 DoD Warrior Games in Port Hueneme, Calif., May 29, 2015. (DoD News photo by EJ Hersom)
Shundra Johnson, right, and her husband Coast Guard Lt. Sancho Johnson share a moment during the Navy’s wounded warrior training camp for the 2015 DoD Warrior Games in Port Hueneme, Calif., May 29, 2015. (DoD News photo by EJ Hersom)

Caregiver, survivor and veteran family issues soon will be pushed directly to the Department of Veterans Affairs' top official, thanks to a new advisory committee announced this week.

The panel, which will hold its first meetings Oct. 23 and 24, is chaired by former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, whose organization, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, is a well-known watchdog on veteran caregiver issues.

The committee is designed to advise VA Secretary David Shulkin on issues affecting veterans' families, caregivers and survivors across all generations and veteran statuses, VA officials said in a release.

The meetings, which will be open to the public, will collect information on service access and quality; send issues directly to Shulkin; and help officials "better understand their needs and identify ways VA can continue to support them," according to a release.

The 18-member committee includes many familiar names, including co-chair Sherman Gillums, executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America; Bonnie Carroll, founder and leader of the survivor support organization TAPS; retired Lt. Gen. Mike Linnington, CEO of the Wounded Warrior Project; Ellyn Dunford, spouse of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford; and Lolita Zinke, whose husband, Ryan Zinke, heads the Department of the Interior.

Zinke also worked on President Donald Trump's campaign and has advised the administration on potential improvements at the VA.

Such an advisory council has been a long time coming, said Steve Schwab, who leads the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.

When Shulkin first joined the VA as an undersecretary in 2015, the foundation worked to present him with caregiver issues. Now that he leads the agency, Schwab said, an official council is the perfect next step.

"I think he was so moved by what he saw focusing on caregivers and all the great effort afoot, and the need to really bring more resources and organization to bear at the VA at the time, that he said, 'We need to form a group that focuses in on this need,' " Schwab said.

Carroll, whose organization has long worked closely with the VA on survivor benefits issues, said the group signed a memorandum of understanding with the VA early this year that outlines the way TAPS and the VA intersect.

"The family has always been front and center in the creation and mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs, so now to take a step forward and formally having a group addressing these issues and hearing from groups representing those constituencies will be incredibly impactful," she said.

While some may worry that the council will be simply for show, Schwab said Dole is unlikely to let that happen.

"She's not a box checker; she never has been," he said. "I think everyone who is on there is determined to really focus on some substantive issues that are facing these populations."

Schwab said the fact the council was even created is a show of good faith from the VA that caregiver issues, including a stipend program that pays some veteran family members to provide care in lieu of hiring outside help, continue to be important.

"No one was required to form the council -- it wasn't mandated," he said. "It was formed out of a passionate belief on the part of the secretary that it was important to do it."

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com.

Related Topics

Headlines Veteran Benefits Survivor Benefits Disabled Veterans Department of Veteran Affairs Family and Spouse Amy Bushatz

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