When Christine Schei’s son, Erik, was gravely injured while serving in Iraq, she immediately began caring for him without considering the seriousness of his injuries or how it would affect her own life.
“I really did not understand,” Christine says. “Maybe I did not want to understand.”
Christine thought Erik just needed time to heal, but it was soon clear Erik’s recovery would require much more. He needed constant help and support.
“At that point, you are ignorant, and I can admit that. But we’d never met anyone with a brain injury, so we didn’t know,” Christine says.
For Christine and her husband, Gordon, the road to becoming caregivers started with Erik’s enlistment in the United States Army shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Following in his father’s footsteps, Erik became a combat engineer, and the bulk of his first tour in Iraq consisted of working as a plumber in Baghdad. Erik liked the work, but he had a nagging feeling he could do more to contribute to his fellow soldiers’ protection. When the Army sent him back to Iraq in 2005, he decided it was time for a change. From that point forward, Erik volunteered for the position of gunner.
On a mission during his second deployment, Erik was at the .50 caliber machine gun of his Humvee while fellow engineers repaired the roadway. He was the sniper’s first and only target.
“It was just one shot,” Gordon explains. “There was no big firefight.”
The sniper’s bullet pierced his helmet and brain, near his right ear. By the time his parents arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland, he was lying in a hospital bed with his skull partially removed. Doctors saw little hope for his future, but they left the decision up to Christine and Gordon. They chose life.
Once Erik was back home in New Mexico, Christine left her job as an office manager and began caring for her son full-time. Erik is bound to a wheelchair because of the injury, which also limits his ability to move and speak. He relies on Christine and Gordon to help with the most basic of functions, including eating and getting dressed.
For Christine, transitioning roles from mother to caregiver wasn’t easy. There were many challenges she could have never anticipated, but the family found help and support through Wounded Warrior Project®(WWP). After taking part in a WWP-sponsored caregiver retreat, Christine said she had a better grasp of her role in treating Erik. The retreat’s work sessions with the wives and mothers of other wounded veterans gave her a place where she could share her fears and worries.
“I think in some way it put things in perspective. When you talked about the situation in your life, they understood it. They got it,” Christine says.
Christine also traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act, a piece of legislation that gives financial and other assistance to caregivers of severely wounded veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. She joined 18 other women who spent a day telling their stories to the legislators on Capitol Hill.
“That was huge for me. It was an honor to be part of it,” Christine says.
Today, Erik does several hours of physical therapy each week and is slowly regaining movement in his arms. WWP takes him outside his home to help him spend time with other veterans at events like Soldier Ride®, a four-day adaptive cycling event. With the help of his younger brother, Deven, also a combat-injured veteran, Erik is able to ride on a special tandem bike.
“Deven gets on the front, and Erik tells him to roll,” Gordon says. “Erik just absolutely loves it.”
Recently, Erik was enrolled in the WWP Independence Program. This new initiative pairs severely injured veterans with specialists who ease them back into the community and help them re-learn certain skills.
“It keeps him moving forward,” Gordon says. “Because it would be so easy for him to stop.”