Strength in numbers: Air Force family cares for its own

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Megan M. Kittler
  • 2nd Bomb Wing Public Affairs
After three years of marriage and their first child on the way, nothing could have prepared the Schmidt family for the news they were about to receive.

Over the course of a few weeks Capt. Eric Schmidt, 96th Bomb Squadron B-Flight commander and B-52 aircraft commander, found himself having trouble keeping food down, constantly feeling fatigued, and developing a nasty cough. After seeing a gastro-intestinal specialist, a scope was inserted into his stomach to see what the problem could possibly be. When the doctor looked up, with tears in her eyes, she told the Schmidt's what she had seen -- cancer.

"I was diagnosed with stomach cancer," he said. "A few days after that diagnosis, I was admitted to the hospital with pancreatitis, cancer and the inability to ingest food."

Captain Schmidt spent three days in the hospital before being transferred to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for further tests.

"During the two weeks I was there, further scans revealed cancer in my lymph nodes, in my lungs and around my abdomen," he said. "With my cancer classified as stage four GI Cancer, the doctors wanted to begin treatment as quickly as possible."

The news of his illness threw the Schmidts' family into a tailspin, but they were not facing the news alone. The Schmidts' had the care and support of his Air Force family.

"When 'Scorch' (as Captain Schmidt is affectionately known as) informed the squadron he had cancer, we all banded together to make sure he wasn't going to face this disease alone -- he has the full force of the 96th Bomb Squadron on his side," said Capt. Scotty Sproles, 96th Bomb Squadron flight commander and B-52 navigator.

As Captain Schmidt began his aggressive chemotherapy treatment, his fellow Airmen of the 96th BS stepped up to help out in any way they could.

"From day one of discovering the news, everyone in the 96th BS, from Lt. Col. David Ballew, the squadron commander, to the newest Red Devil, has pledged their prayers and support," he said.

But, these Airmen didn't just "talk-the-talk," they backed up their words with actions.

"The members of this squadron took his diagnosis pretty hard, but we used it as motivation to take care of their needs," Captain Sproles said. "We started a lawn-mowing detail for them, painted the nursery in their house and have been cooking meals for them. Anything we can do to alleviate their burdens, we are making sure they are taken care of.

"Most importantly, we're making sure he's not forgotten while away," said Captain Sproles. "E-mails, Facebook posts, texts, phone calls and home visits by squadron personnel let them know we're still thinking about them and are at the ready for anything they might need."

To further show support, more than 80 percent of the squadron along with members of the bomber community stationed around the globe has shaved their heads, since chemotherapy causes most patients to lose their hair during the course of treatment.

"I've been shaving my head for years, so when his hair started falling out Captain Schmidt called me to find out my techniques for keeping my hair 'at the ground floor,'" said Captain Sproles. "After telling someone about the conversation, it was suggested we all cut our hair. Most people did it at home, but we had a little shaving party for a couple of guys before we took the group picture."

As of right now, Captain Schmidt receives chemotherapy every two weeks and the doctors will perform new CT scans every two months to determine the best course of action. According to his online journal, the doctors have told the family that Captain Schmidt's response to the first four rounds of chemotherapy was impressive.

"Over two-thirds of all the cancer found in my body is gone and they want to continue the same regiment for another two months," Captain Schmidt wrote. "They don't see any new cancer appearing. Because it was found in multiple parts of my body, there is likely no surgical solution that would remove the cancer for sure. Therefore, it is likely that we will be dealing with cancer for the rest of my life to some degree."

Although Captain Schmidt is fighting his own personal battle, he hasn't given up the dream of one day returning to the cockpit.

"If the doctors believe that I will be able to return to duty, I will go before a medical evaluation board to determine if I can stay on active duty," he said. "After that, the Air Force will determine if I can return to flying status. I don't know if I will be able to fly the B-52 again, but I certainly wish to."

The love and support Captain Schmidt has received from his Air Force family throughout the world has left a lasting impression on him.

"Neither rank nor job title has stopped Airmen from giving of their time and compassion in any of the places I have seen," he said. "The moral support, as well as the service support is more than I ever expected. I am humbled and honored that so many are behind my family and I. It is a privilege to serve in an Air Force with such great Airmen."

To show your support, make a donation, or to learn more about Captain Schmidt and his battle through cancer you can visit his Web site at www.caringbridge.org/visit/schmidt.