VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)
He was a young Air Force officer healing from a recent trauma and she was a dedicated single mother of two. Whether it was friends or fate that first brought them together, neither would have suspected that their chance meeting in Florida would be the key to his recovery.
Their introduction to each other was unlikely – not due to the events of the day they met, but of one roughly six months earlier, when Capt. Mitch Kieffer lay in a hospital bed in Iraq about to be medically evacuated to the states. He was suffering from injuries sustained after an improvised explosive device passed through his lightly armored SUV and damaged not only his body but also his mind.
Mitch said Ana Maria deserves credit for much of his continual improvement. It is also with her support that he is currently defending the title of “Ultimate Champion,” a title he earned at the 2013 Warrior Games, a Paralympic-styled event.
After his convoy was attacked, Mitch entered into a world of pain. His head hurt constantly and he began to realize the manner and speed with which he had previously communicated had changed due to a traumatic brain injury.
“My cognitive processing speed was really slow,” he said. “By the time someone was saying something to me and I was breaking down the message and figuring out what I thought of it and how to respond, the moment had passed. So I became pretty quiet because I just couldn’t keep up with the speed of conversations.”
Mitch said he was cognizant of his mental impairment. As a math major who enjoyed analytics, he was terrified by his new reality and the possibility of a worst case scenario – that his struggle could be permanent and his previous mental capacity was forever lost.
“That was the scary thing, because I couldn’t think,” he said. “I was trying, but nothing came to my head and I was pretty worried and I didn’t have much hope. As time went on, however, I started to notice I could pick things up a little quicker and still learn. It gave me more willpower to push harder.”
But Mitch admits it was his new family and the need to learn a new language that turned the tide on his learning process.
“It wasn’t until I met my future wife and my lovely two daughters now, that I actually started learning or speaking Spanish. They are from Peru originally, and that was just the mental workout I needed to help build the connections (in my brain) that I’d kind of broken.”
While the couple was dating, they took a trip to Peru to visit with Ana Maria’s family. Mitch said that at the time he didn’t know a “lick of Spanish,” but afterward, he was inspired to pick it up. He began to use a combination of Rosetta Stone, the English-Spanish dictionary and cassette tapes during his drive to and from work to learn Spanish.
Ana Maria believes it made all the difference in the world.
“I noticed that he just started picking (the language) up fast, to the point that now he can -- it’s not 100 percent, but I would say that it’s 90 percent -- that he can communicate with my family,” Ana Maria said, adding that she saw it also helped with his memory.
Ana Maria said Mitch’s struggles and setbacks weren’t apparent early in their relationship and she thought he was just a regular guy. She had never heard the terms TBI or PTSD.
“He came to me and told me, ‘hey this is what I have,’ and to me it was like, okay, just get it over with. Don’t’ worry stressing about it; you understand everybody has stress in their life … he’s like, ‘no, this is something different.’ So he gave me a couple websites and I just started looking and researching and reading material and then talking to other people.”
The PTSD manifested in Mitch’s life months after the TBI and added a new challenge to the relationship. Ana Maria started to see markers of the disease after they moved in together. Mitch was in school working on his master’s degree in operations research at the Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio, and they had started to plan their wedding. Stress was high.
“You fight with your spouse or your boyfriend, but the fights that you have with people with PTSD or TBI; it’s different,” Ana Maria said. “It’s a different concept, so that’s when I (started to) notice … When I said something to him that would not be mean (to others), but to him was such a big deal, it was a little confusing.”
The relationship had strains, but Ana Maria said she has never changed her mind about marrying Mitch. She made a commitment to take the good with the bad.
After his diagnosis, both began to educate themselves and are learning how to cope with PTSD, each in their own way. For Ana Maria, she said patience and understanding are two key elements. In a given situation, she tries to take a moment to recognize if Mitch is talking or acting a certain way because of the influence of PTSD before she reacts.
Through their trials, Mitch and Ana Maria still maintain that newlywed spirit. She sees in him a driven, loving husband and a great father; and Mitch never lost that feeling he got the first time he laid eyes on her.
“To me it was like love at first sight; for her, she tells me that she thinks I was a loser,” he said teasing his wife. “I continue to tell the story that, no, she was smitten the first day that she saw me.
“It was just the right fit. I wasn’t looking for anything. I was (working through issues) and hurting quite a bit, (but ultimately,) there was nothing I could do. I was just hit by the love truck,” he chuckled.
Ultimately, their marriage is like any other. It takes effort and patience to make it work. Though they have additional battle scars to contend with, Mitch and Ana Maria said they will continue to face recovery head-on together.