News

Adaptive Sports, Service Dog Aid Airman in Recovery

July 6, 2017 | BY Shannon Collins , DOD News

For medically retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Eric Fisher, an archer, swimmer and track and field athlete at the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games here, resilience isn't just a word -- it's a way of life.

Air Force veteran Tech Sgt. Eric Fisher and his dog Lola stand for photo at McCormick Place where several events in the 2017 Dept. of Defense Warrior Games are being held in Chicago June, 29, 2017.  The DoD Warrior Games are an annual event allowing wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans to compete in Paralympic-style sports. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)
Medically retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Eric Fisher and his dog, Lola, pose for a photo at McCormick Place, where several 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games events are being held in Chicago, June, 29, 2017. Held annually, the games feature wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans competing in Paralympic-style sports. DoD photo by EJ Hersom
Air Force veteran Tech Sgt. Eric Fisher and his dog Lola stand for photo at McCormick Place where several events in the 2017 Dept. of Defense Warrior Games are being held in Chicago June, 29, 2017.  The DoD Warrior Games are an annual event allowing wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans to compete in Paralympic-style sports. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)
Warriors Practice for 2017 DoD Warrior Games
Medically retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Eric Fisher and his dog, Lola, pose for a photo at McCormick Place, where several 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games events are being held in Chicago, June, 29, 2017. Held annually, the games feature wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans competing in Paralympic-style sports. DoD photo by EJ Hersom
Photo By: EJ Hersom
VIRIN: 170629-D-DB155-031

He joined the Navy in 1984 so he could serve on fast attack submarines, and then switched to the Air Force in 1997, where he first served as a security forces airman before becoming an air transportation journeyman.

He served combat deployments in Iraq in 2004, 2005 and 2006 and in Afghanistan in 2009, 2010 and 2011. During his deployment to Afghanistan in March 2011, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded close to him, and he suffered a heart attack brought on by stress. He also has post-traumatic stress from the multiple deployments.

Catalysts for Recovery

Fisher is also recovering from cancer. He said the first three years were rough, and he was in a dark place. But it all changed, Fisher said, when he received his service dog, Lola, and started participating in adaptive sports.

"I told my recovery care coordinator, ‘I'm not into sports. I don't know if I can be around a bunch of people,'" Fisher recalled. He went to a training camp and picked up archery and enjoyed it. He wanted to try swimming because he swam in high school, but was afraid he couldn't do it because of the cancer.

"Chemotherapy scarred my lungs, so I don't have the ability to keep my breath for swimming," he said, "so I said I'd just try it. But at the Air Force trials I took silver and gold in swimming. I guess I can swim again -- just short-distance."

Fisher said he was surprised he could shoot the compound bow at archery, because he had never shot before. He earned a gold medal at the Air Force trials.

"It's been amazing getting out and accomplishing things instead of just surviving," he said. "Before, I would just eat my meals sometimes, take my medication and find other ways to make myself function. Now I go out to my local archery club. Just getting out and seeing people, it was tough before. Now, it's a lot easier."

Fisher said he couldn't believe he was among the final 40 athletes who were picked for the Air Force Warrior Games team. "I never pictured myself in this position, especially being around crowds, but I've got the support system here with the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program and family and friends. It's made a huge difference in my life," he said.

Fisher's service dog, Lola, a Labrador retriever-springer spaniel mix, has been his constant companion for three years. He said she gives him the ability to be out in public.

"She's meant a lot in my recovery," he said. "She's a huge part of my life. Here at the games, she keeps me grounded. She can tell when I'm tense or nervous. She'll climb up into my lap. If we're standing on the line for archery, she'll stand behind me to block from the back and it gives me comfort that way -- a little bit of security that nothing's behind me that's unknown."

He said they feed off of each other's anxiety, but comfort each other as well. "I help her out with some of her anxieties, and she helps me out with a lot of mine. It's kind of a partnership. It works really well," Fisher said.

Daredevil

Fisher's other injuries are to his neck and leg from racing utility task vehicles in Terracross, a race series in which side-by-side utility vehicles and all-terrain vehicles race through rocks, logs, mud tires and other obstacles on a short course.

"I hit the jump, but let off the gas too soon and hit the receiving ramp head-on," Fisher said of his accident two years ago. He raced again last year and expects to race again. "The accident was terrible, but whatever. I went back. It was too much fun," he said, laughing.

Fisher recommends not only adaptive sports but also any healthy sporting outlet for service members with post-traumatic stress disorder or other medical issues.

"There are so many different things available for military with PTSD or any other issues," he said. "You might say, 'I don't know if I can do that,' but there's so much support around that you can do it if you give it a try."

Fisher added, "There's light at the end of the tunnel. There are so many opportunities to get help and so many people who care about you. You have support. You have help. You just need to seek that help."