Life as an infantryman and Army Ranger took a toll on Matt Drinkwalter’s mind and body. As a result of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he now endures a traumatic brain injury (TBI) with cognitive disorder; has severe and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder; can’t move his feet properly due to torn ankle ligaments and screws in his toes and experiences migraines.
A doctor also told him that at age 42, he has the hips of an 80-year-old.
“Every morning, I feel like a truck hit me,” added Drinkwalter.
He met his wife, Darci, after leaving military service. They’ve been married since 2018, and she said she’s been his caregiver since day one.
“I knew he was going through some things when I first met him, but I was pretty oblivious to a lot of what was really happening,” she said.
By 2012, the Department of Veterans Affairs staff officially enrolled them in the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, a support program for eligible veterans who incurred grave injuries from military service.
“I felt that a lifeline had been thrown my way and that I was finally seen,” she said.
Darci orders Matt’s medications and ensures he takes them on time as prescribed. She also provides weekly injections and ensures he’s using his prosthetic devices. And she’s there for him during flashbacks and migraines. When Matt becomes disoriented and forgets where his is, Darci brings him back.
“I could write a book for the many ways she helps me,” said Matt. “She helps me both physically and mentally on a daily basis.”
The monthly stipend the Drinkwalters received meant that Darci could afford to tend to Matt’s full-time needs.
But everything changed in December 2021 when a VA caregiver coordinator informed them they would be dropped from the program because Drinkwalter, in their opinion, did not need six months of continuous care.
The Drinkwalters are among the various “legacy” participants in the VA’s caregiver program who were notified they would be released after the department reviewed program standards and eligibility, which changed in 2021. According to the VA, these reviews were intended to help ensure that families—many of whom receive a monthly stipend—are treated fairly.
However, they feel like they may be dropped from a program they say has been life-changing.
“I felt unseen and unappreciated,” added Darci. “How could someone look at his medical records and not see what I do?”
In an abrupt departure, the VA announced in March that the agency was halting all dismissals while the department reevaluates new eligibility criteria.
“There are veterans with moderate to severe care needs who are unable to be admitted into the program or remain in the program, as the regulations currently stand,” VA Deputy Secretary Donald Remy said at a press conference. “That’s simply not what we want. That’s not what the veterans and caregivers need from us.”
The caregiver initiative has been a lifeline for tens of thousands, but the unacceptably high rate of denials into and discharges from the program based on new eligibility criteria has been deeply troubling, according to National Service Director Jim Marszalek, who testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committee following the VA announcement.
“The caregiver program is not just about meeting their needs,” said Marszalek. “It is also about providing the honor, respect and tangible support that caregivers and their families have earned and deserve.”