When Erin Hollis and her husband, Deo, met online five years ago, they had an immediate connection that led to marriage within six months.
Little did either know that six months after they married, their military life would begin to crumble.
Erin calls Deo her hero because of the sacrifices he made to serve his country. But Deo says Erin is the hero, for all the care she’s given him since a debilitating injury during training.
Deo, 34, came from a military family, grew up at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and joined the U.S. Army right out of high school. By 2014, he was a sergeant tank crewman based at Fort Benning, Georgia. He had already had two deployments and had orders for Korea later that year.
But before he could fulfill those orders, Deo injured his back during a workout at his duty station in Georgia. That led to the discovery of degenerative disk disease, two prior traumatic brain injuries and PTSD.
The findings were the result of two deployments to Iraq, where he was involved in daily tank patrols and other missions, as well as numerous IED hits to the tank. Deo’s injury wasn’t the acute damage of a direct combat situation, but more of a chronic buildup that exploded that June day in 2014 as he and his platoon sergeant were lifting a large tractor tire during a CrossFit workout.
“It was the accumulation of rattling around in the tank, bouncing off the steel inside, the MMA-type combat training,” and CrossFit, he said. “Something in my back just snapped and that was it.”
Once the whole scope of Deo’s injuries was diagnosed, it might have been enough for a new bride to pack her things and leave.
But Erin wasn’t going anywhere.
The couple continued to live at Fort Benning until Deo’s medical discharge in 2015 and made their way to Kingsport to be closer to Erin’s family.
Through all of the physical challenges, the couple’s love grew, Deo adopted Erin’s two children and they focused on Deo’s treatment. With his 100 percent military disability benefits, Erin didn’t work outside the home because she became her husband’s full-time caregiver.
A national nonprofit organization called Hidden Heroes recently established a local chapter for the Tri-Cities to recognize the sacrifices military veteran caregivers like Erin make on a daily basis.
The nonprofit foundation’s goals are to:
• Raise awareness of the issues military caregivers confront every day.
• Inspire individuals, businesses, communities and civic, faith and government leaders to take action to support military caregivers in their communities.
• Establish a national registry, encouraging military caregivers to register at HiddenHeroes.org to better connect them to helpful resources and support.
“HiddenHeroes.org is the premier online destination for military caregivers,” the website says. “This first-of-its-kind website includes testimonials from military caregivers who share their personal stories; a vetted directory of valuable resources; the opportunity to join a private Facebook community for military caregivers; and calls-to-action for communities and individuals to get involved.”
Often in those type situations, the veteran becomes everyone’s focus and the caregiver is in the shadows. But the Hidden Heroes organization has pulled those caregivers out of the dark to showcase the important role they play in helping their veteran live as normal of a life as possible.
There are good days and bad days, both said, but each day is getting better. Deo pushes through his back pain without narcotics, Erin helps him with reminders he might need because of his TBI, and a program called the SHARE Military Initiative at Shepherd Center has drastically improved the effects of his PTSD.
The three-month in-patient program at the Shepherd Center was intense, Deo said, but it — and his wife’s support — gave him the tools and skills to handle everyday situations.
“She can talk me down,” in tense situations, he said. And the things he learned at SHARE have already helped Deo calm himself before taking negative action when he’s angered.
SHARE is the reason Deo said he can stand to be alone for any length of time, which has given Erin the opportunity to have some “me time” — even if it’s just a trip to the grocery store.
Erin is quick to say she’s not a hero. She’s a wife and mother taking care of her family, and she said it’s her husband who is the hero for his military service.
But for Deo, Erin is, and will remain, his hero.