Caregivers play critical role in lives of wounded warriors

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas (AFNS) -- Tech. Sgt. Eric Fisher was two months into a five-month deployment in 2011 to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, when he suffered a heart attack after an intense rocket attack, and a day of moving heavy pallets on the flight line.  
 
He was evacuated to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, for treatment and then sent home. At the time, Eric was serving as an air transportation specialist with the Air Force Reserve, and as a special education teaching assistant as a civilian.  
 
“It was completely unexpected since it was my sixth deployment and since I was used to the rigors involved,” said Eric. “It has been very disheartening not being able to do the things I did before.”

During his follow-up treatment and recovery, Eric was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and later, in 2013, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer that originates from a specific type of white blood cells called lymphocytes. His ongoing health concerns are related to his PTSD, heart condition and residual effects from the chemotherapy that include neuropathy and memory dysfunction. He was placed on the permanent disability retirement list in July 2017.

Although Eric’s injuries have been life-altering, life also changed for his wife, Caroline, and their three children. She became a caregiver before she knew what one really was.

A military caregiver is a family member, friend or acquaintance who provides a broad range of non-professional care and assistance for a former military service member with a physical disability, mental injury or illness.

“I ended up leaving a career management position for a part-time job that gives me work-from-home options to care for him,” Caroline said. “At the time, we both had good careers, were involved with our kids’ activities and enjoyed family vacations. We were living the American dream, really. After the injury, our overall income dropped by more than half, even with the military benefits we receive.”

Caroline says it has been tough, but after 31 years of marriage, they have learned to persevere together.

“If Eric is having a good day, I can get away for meetings or events, but I always have to leave open the possibility that I may need to drop everything if he needs a caregiver,” Caroline said. “Because of his memory issues, I sort his medicines and remind him to take them daily. He has limited feeling in his hands and feet, so I often have to help him handle objects and navigate uneven terrain.” 

When the medical conditions were at their peak, the Fishers were literally at a doctor’s appointment every day of the week with multiple appointments on some days. 

“We have had so many emergency room visits that we have lost track,” Caroline said. “We still maintain a ‘go bag’ just in case there is another chest pain, unexpected fall or other emergency.” 

Caroline plans and cooks all the meals, manages the finances and makes all the medical appointments.

Fortunately for the Fishers, and many like them, the Air Force Wounded Warrior Caregiver Support Program is there to provide personalized support and services to military caregivers as an integral part of the wounded, ill and injured Airman’s recovery and rehabilitation.

There are more than 400 active military caregivers in the AFW2 program.

“Our military caregivers are truly unsung heroes, so we want to empower and educate them as they provide critical support for the wounded warriors,” said Tonya McGough, AFW2 Caregiver Program manager. “We want the caregivers to always know they are not alone and that our wounded warrior team members are standing with them, side-by-side. One of our main goals is to improve their resiliency by providing valuable resources and by connecting them to other caregivers.”
 
The AFW2 caregiver staff works directly with recovery care coordinators, peer support coordinators, members of the Veterans Affairs Caregiver Support Program and staff members at Airman and Family Readiness Centers to ensure needed support is available and accessible.

“Without our caregivers’ loving care and support, our wounded warriors would not be able to carry on,” McGough said. “We want to help these families move forward and find their ‘new normal,’ whatever that might be.”
 
During those initial months, the Fishers’ recovery care coordinator helped them navigate the medical bureaucracy and introduced them to the AFW2 Program and its CARE events.   
 
The AFW2 Program hosts six CARE events a year at different locations where more than 100 Air Force wounded, ill or injured service men, women and their caregivers take part in adaptive sporting events, mentorship training, career readiness classes, recreational events and more. The caregiver component includes workshops on traumatic brain injuries, finances, resiliency, diet, medical-support skills and other educational classes.
 
“At the events, I get a chance to talk to other military people who are in similar situations and who are experiencing what I am going through,” Eric said. “Adaptive sports has also been extremely helpful, both physically and mentally.”

The Fishers attended their first of three CARE events in April 2016 at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. In July 2017, Eric won a gold medal in the 50-meter backstroke at the Department of Defense Warrior Games in Chicago.
 
“We both came to our first event wounded and not knowing how to continue on our path,” Caroline said. “The folks at the wounded warrior program helped glue us back together. The friends we have met are friends for life -- truly.”  

Caroline said they have both learned the importance of grieving their losses and have found resources that allowed them to pick up the pieces and rebuild. 

“As we begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Caroline, “there is no doubt that the program has been instrumental in getting us to this point. We now know we have a safety net whenever we need it.”