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Caregiver Wife’s Support Instrumental to Wounded Warrior’s Recovery

Image of Retired Air Force Tech Sgt. Eric Heldman staying active. Retired Air Force Tech Sgt. Eric Heideman stays active with adaptive sports, including shooting with a precision air rifle, swimming, archery, and riding a recumbent bike for exercise and fun, which help his anxiety and PTSD (Courtesy of Crystal and Eric Heideman).

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Rural Wisconsin natives Eric and Crystal Heideman love the outdoors, particularly water activities.

As a young married couple with a toddler, they decided the Air Force was a good career option for their family. In 1998, when Eric was 23 years old, he enlisted as a ground transportation specialist.

Like many service members from that era, Eric deployed regularly to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On his sixth deployment, in 2012, Eric's vehicle was in a rollover accident in Afghanistan. At the time, he pushed through. "When you're in a combat zone, you just keep going," said Crystal. "If you got all your limbs, you just keep going - and that's what he did."

But his wife now believes that he sustained significant injuries that would begin to change his life. "It was when he got back that I started noticing some changes in him," his wife recalled.

Eric's list of injuries and his diagnosis would expand in the next few years, rendering him physically and cognitively unable to handle many routine life tasks. His wife is now a full-time caregiver, helping Eric with daily tasks and managing his ongoing care and therapy with the help of the Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) program.

A Bumpy Road

Just eight months after returning home from his sixth deployment, Eric shipped out again for his seventh. He was withdrawn and moody. His wife knew something was wrong, but she could not figure out exactly what it was.

"We didn't get a whole lot of time at home to reintegrate between deployments," Crystal said. "There wasn't a whole lot of downtime where I could really see how my husband was."

It was during that seventh deployment that she noticed Eric begin to shut down. "He completely separated from us - he didn't speak to us much," she said.

"He completely immersed himself into work, because he had a lot to do," she said. "And it was easy to ignore everything going on at home and inside his head."

Then, in 2016, after yet another deployment - his ninth and final mission overseas - Eric, a tech sergeant at the time, was medically evacuated due to mental health concerns.

Approximately two weeks after getting home, Eric fell off a 12-foot ladder. "He broke both of his arms," Crystal said. "He ended up with a year-long bone infection and multiple surgeries."

That was when the Heidemans got involved with the AFW2 program. His recovery care case manager began to connect all his injuries and make sense of his constellation of symptoms. Eric was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury, major depressive disorder as well as cognitive delays and memory issues due to a lesion on his brain.

Crystal Heideman posing with her husband
Crystal Heideman and her husband of 25 years, retired Air Force Tech Sgt. Eric Heideman, got involved with the Air Force Wounded Warrior program after his return home from a ninth deployment. They have navigated retirement, injuries, and recovery together, remaining optimistic and staying active (Courtesy of Crystal and Eric Heideman).

He also has non-epileptic seizures and foot drop, which is the inability to raise the front part of the foot due to weakness or paralysis of the muscles. It's usually caused by neurological, muscular, or anatomical problems. "And hearing loss, let's not forget the hearing loss," Crystal recalled.

AFW2 Support Adjusting

Since then, the AFW2 program has supported the Heideman's health care journey. At first, there were multiple visits to military hospitals every week to see specialists, including mental health providers, physical therapists, neurologists, and others.

The program also advocated to get Eric medically retired from the Air Force and helped with their transition to the Department of Veterans Affairs health system.

Soon after being medically retired following 20 years of service, Eric and Crystal took their recreational vehicle and began traveling the country to spend time together, managing his health care via telehealth appointments. But when Eric started developing seizures, traveling like that no longer seemed safe.

They chose to settle in Virginia so they could be close to the water and halfway between their two kids. Their son Kyle lives in Florida; and their daughter, who is expecting her first child, was living in Wisconsin.

Today, almost three years into adjusting to his retirement, Eric's care has boiled down to a daily routine. "As far as medical appointments go, they've kind of simmered down" said Crystal."

He does physical therapy every other week. He sees a neurologist several times a year. He also periodically goes to a seizure clinic and gets a brain MRI every six months.

"We have a plan, and we know what we're doing moving forward, so we don't need to see everybody as often," she said.

Still, "he talks to his therapist every week, no matter what."

His Story Is Also Hers

Crystal's role as a full-time caregiver and wife never ends. "Our stories are so much interconnected," she said. "I don't know how to separate his personal stuff from my stuff, because, well, in the long run, it was part of my story."

"Crystal is always there to make sure Eric is okay. She makes sure he takes his medication. She makes sure that he eats well and remembers to turns off the stove. She helps manage the household and his medical appointments. "I watch him losing his identity daily," she said. "And I try so hard not to allow that to happen."

Their biggest struggle, she said, has been managing the seizures, because "we don't know if we're doing everything we can to help eliminate them."

Crystal explained that Eric suffers from non-epileptic seizures, which are triggered by PTSD and anxiety and cannot be treated with medication or surgery.

Retired Air Force Tech Sgt. Eric Heideman riding a bike
Retired Air Force Tech Sgt. Eric Heideman rides a recumbent bike adapted with two wheels in the front to help keep his balance. He got involved in adaptive sports to stay active and help his anxiety and PTSD following medical retirement after 20 years of service in the Air Force (Courtesy of Crystal and Eric Heideman).

"They're sporadic - you just have to watch for them," she said. "I just have to know when they're coming - they can come on when he's standing and I have to catch him, so he doesn't fall down."

Eric's drop foot condition also affects his balance, adding another reason for Crystal to keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn't fall.

He's been to specialty therapies and recently finished cognitive processing therapy (CPT), a specific type of evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy that has been shown to be effective in treating PTSD, according to the National Institutes of Health. CPT involves helping individuals evaluate and change the upsetting thoughts they have from trauma.

"A lot of it is mental," she said. "They happen when he gets pretty stressed or confused, and with everything going on, he just can't handle it."

Sports Provide Freedom

Even though Eric is receptive to the care he receives and tries to remain positive, there are frequent bumps on the road.

He has embraced adaptive sports, allowing him to remain active and independent. He shoots archery and swims. He also enjoys riding his recumbent bike - a three-wheeled variant because he doesn't have the balance to ride a regular bike. Riding his bike helps his mood and puts him in a "really good spot for at least the first two-thirds of the day," Crystal said.

"If I can get him riding that bike every morning, it just starts his day off so much better".

He's also gotten into shooting with a precision air rifle. But because of the pain in his arms, he can't hold the weight of the rifle. "He has to use what they call a spring stand, which holds the weight of the rifle," she said.

And he pulls the trigger with his middle finger, "not his pointer finger because that has no feeling," she said.

Eric and Crystal used to enjoy paddle boarding, but he is no longer to do that, so the couple has begun tandem kayaking instead.

Despite the frequent bumps in the road, Crystal said, "they just keep trying."

"When we hit a roadblock, we find our way around it," she said.

She's thankful for the medical care Eric has access to.

"He's that poster child that doesn't just have the VA health insurance," she said. "He also has Medicare and TRICARE, so we have a lot of options."

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