Serving Those Who Serve: How Paid Family and Medical Leave Could Support Military Families

A veteran at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Darrell Bush, age 96, left, a former US Army Staff Sgt., from Camp Springs, Maryland, and a WWII veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, arrives to place a flower during a centennial commemoration event at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in Arlington National Cemetery on November 10, 2021, in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by ALEX BRANDON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

By Amie Knowles

November 10, 2021

Family members of wounded veterans may not be able to help take care of their loved ones without losing income. This bill could change that.  

FAIRFAX—It’s official. Paid family and medical leave is back in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which is currently under consideration in Congress. The current bill would allow up to four weeks for qualifying Americans to receive paid leave, which they could use to care for a family member in need. For those caring for young children to aging parents, the program could offer financial security during a difficult time. 

Del. Dan Helmer, who serves the 40th District in Fairfax County and Prince William County, spoke about a certain population of Virginia residents that the measure could especially help—families of wounded veterans. A veteran and current reservist himself, the lieutenant colonel has a unique perspective. Helmer, a West Point graduate who served active duty in the US Army from 2003 to 2014 in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea, is now a Virginia delegate passionate about enacting positive change for his fellow residents.

And among those positive changes? Paid family and medical leave. 

A Sacrifice 

For veterans wounded during military service, Helmer said family members often become necessary to the healing process. And that process looks different for everyone, depending on the severity of the injury and time it takes to recover.

“Service members often require a family member to participate as a caretaker when they are injured in combat or injured in training—and to support paid family medical leave is to be pro-veteran in the sense of insuring that those family members of those injured in the course of their service have access to a mechanism by which they can take care of a service member who was injured,” Helmer said. 

While Helmer stressed that the military does what it can for its service members, spouses of wounded veterans often make sacrifices.

“We did not build a military predicated on working spouses,” Helmer said. “And so those networks exist in ways that don’t assume a two-income family, don’t assume a working spouse.”

Helmer used the example of Specialist Jane Doe. If she required extensive medical attention more than what was offered on base, her family would likely uproot with her so she could receive treatment from a facility with proper accommodations for her injury. But if her husband John Doe was employed at a local company, his job likely couldn’t move with the family. That could present a financial hardship during an already difficult circumstance.

“Currently, the ways in which that family is not injured financially are very limited, especially if Jane needs to go to Walter Reed, but they’re stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado or they’re stationed at Fort Lee in Virginia and need to get specialized treatment somewhere else in the country,” Helmer said. “There really are very limited mechanisms that keep that family whole financially while attending to an injured service member—and paid family [and] medical leave totally transforms that.” 

For active duty service members, Helmer said the military already has a robust set of protocols to help with their needs. But paid family and medical leave could help even more by allowing family members to be a critical part of the veteran’s support network.  

“It’s actually very straightforward. It’s if you want the family members of service members who are injured in the course of doing their service to be able to attend to them, then you need a mechanism through which to provide them with paid time off,” Helmer said. “Paid family medical leave is the only mechanism that exists for that.”

Building a Better Future 

In advance of the paid family and medical leave possibility, Virginia’s already ahead of the game when it comes to ensuring opportunities for families of military members. 

In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill into law in July that treated military spouses and children as a protected class. The legislation ensured that active duty service members or family members of veterans would not face employment discrimination because of the veteran’s status. 

Although Helmer expressed pride in those changes, he said there’s still work to be done. And while action might’ve been a long time coming, it seems to be heading in the right direction.

“If you believe that injured service members ought to have their family be able to support them, then the time was not just now, it was years ago,” Helmer said. “And so we should fight for paid family [and] medical leave today because we should’ve done it already. And to support it is to support our veteran community and our active duty service members.”

For everyday Virginians wanting to be a part of the change, Helmer suggested reaching out to the governor-elect Glenn Youngkin and local legislators.

“I think you can say this is not a Republican issue. This is not a Democratic issue,” Helmer said. “This is an issue of supporting our service members, supporting all Virginians, in that to make sure we remain the number one state for business and continue to support our workforce, we need to make sure that workers who are injured on the job—including active duty military service members—can get paid time off. That we’re not pushing people into poverty for being injured in the course of their work…And to make sure that military service members can have a family member, without going into bankruptcy, with them if they’re injured.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected] 

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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