Through sports and courage, he perseveres
Heriberto Vidro is a father, friend, and United States hero. Enlisting in the Army Reserves in 1980, Vidro—as his friends and family call him—served our country for 24 years.
An ambush brings pain
In 2003, Vidro went to Iraq. A member of the 773rd Transportation Company, he and his unit were transporting fuel to the 3rd Infantry Division on the frontlines when they were ambushed. As he ran to help his fellow Soldiers, an explosion threw him into the air.
Landing on his back caused Vidro pain and discomfort, but because he showed no outward signs of distress, his case did not seem urgent. In fact, the Army was unaware of the severity of his injuries until the end of his tour in the fall of 2003.
Back home in New Jersey, Vidro began visiting specialists for nerve problems and muscle spasms. He soon discovered his kidneys were affected by the fall; he had two herniated discs in his neck and two in his lower back. Because the lower herniated discs rubbed against a nerve, Vidro’s left leg became numb and he could not walk. He also began experiencing neurological issues with his left hand. Additionally, Vidro was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Doctors prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) to control PTSD. He has tried pain medicine, spinal nerve blocks, and various other pain management procedures, all without success. He had hand surgery, but it did not improve his damaged nerves, so he is unable to hold anything in his left hand.
Ultimately, Vidro underwent back surgery in 2008. While he cannot stand or sit for long periods, the back surgery has brought some relief.
Undiagnosed head injuries mean more treatments
Although they weren’t identified at the time, Vidro had also sustained head injuries. He frequently suffers from migraines, dizzy spells, and blurred vision. He has tinnitus, a condition that has left him completely deaf in his right ear.
In January 2015, he underwent a baha implant (a device using a sound processor with a small titanium fixture implanted behind the ear that allows the bone to transfer sound to his functioning left ear), which allows Vidro to hear sounds on his right side. Unfortunately, late that same year he began to lose hearing out of his left ear; for that, he takes a daily injection of an immunosuppressant.
For over a decade, Vidro needed a cane to keep his balance. Sometimes he cannot differentiate between hot and cold temperatures. His injuries affected his ability to speak correctly, and have caused short-term memory loss, confusion, and rapid mood changes. He has undergone over a dozen surgeries and procedures, and has spent lengths of time in the hospital.
Roadblocks to a rating
Despite significant health-related documentation, Vidro faced significant roadblocks to receiving his disability rating. Initially, he was given only a 20% rating in 2004. He appealed twice with no change in his rating. In 2007, he appealed again. By 2014, he was infuriated with the lack of help, support, or increased benefits.
When he became extremely upset during a therapy session, his therapist asked him to bring in his records. For the sixth time, Vidro requested his paperwork from the military. He brought the sealed envelope to his next therapy session, where a note attached to his medical records was discovered. It read: “Denied. No proof this vet ever served in Iraq.”
Appalling, directly under that note were: Vidro’s DD Form 214 (discharge from active duty certificate) saying he served in Iraq for a year; a copy of an award he and his unit received for driving over one million miles in Iraq; and the written report of their unit’s ambush on The Highway of Death (the six-lane highway between Kuwait and Iraq).
Within a month, Vidro received his 100% disability rating. “I was relieved but also angry,” says Vidro. “The most I received from the military in back pay was six months. For over 10 years, I went without compensation because some person placed an inaccurate note on my records and no one bothered to check. I served this country honorably, sacrificed greatly, and deserve to be treated better than that. All vets do.”
This is why Vidro stresses the importance of continually fighting for your benefits and compensation. “Never give up. Keep fighting the VA (Veterans Health Administration) for what you deserve, and do not lose hope.”
A new approach to treatment
Vidro will not give up; he works closely with his doctors to prioritize his symptoms so he can make the most out of life. He stopped taking pain medicine in 2010 because of the way it made him feel, but Vidro has reintroduced this form of therapy (in the form of a new drug) and is experiencing some relief. A blood thinner, anti-anxiety, stool softener, sleeping, and heart medication—as well as vitamins and fish oil—round out his medicines each day.
Vidro also attends group therapy, individual counseling, and has developed his own daily exercise regime using techniques he learned in occupational therapy.
Distraction—and sport—as a path to less pain
Yet the best form of relief comes from distraction. Staying busy allows Vidro to block out some of the pain. His favorite new activities include cooking, public speaking, and adaptive hunting, skiing, shooting, kayaking, and biking.
Disabled Sports USA, a non-profit that improves the lives of wounded warriors by providing adaptive sports and recreation opportunities, has been an instrumental part of Vidro’s recovery. He also has enjoyed participating in Idaho’s Higher Ground: Sun Valley’s snow sports program for the military (using therapeutic recreation to facilitate a change in perspective). His local ski resort, Waterville Valley, offers an adaptive snow sports program that has provided endless hours of exercise, fun, and purpose in Vidro’s life.
For Vidro, being active while connecting with other veterans has been therapeutic. Not only has he developed more independence and confidence through sports, but he has also found new passions.
“I learned to ski after my injuries,” Vidro laughs. “When I began, I needed outriggers. Now I am going down black diamonds. I also volunteer, helping teach disabled kids to ski!”
Vidro also volunteers at Shoot NJ, teaching individuals gun safety and self-defense. He assists with hunter education classes for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, too.
Riding his recumbent bike is something Vidro loves to do. In the past nine years, he has participated in five three-to-four-day biking events, winning one.
Discovering his real potential with Houdini
Through sports, Vidro has rediscovered his life potential. He has tested the limits of his body through fishing, horseback riding, and whitewater rafting. These adventures make him feel normal; he enjoys the camaraderie. Being able to joke and laugh with fellow vets while learning to support one another is important to him.
“We have a unique bond. We know and understand what one another are going through,” says Vidro, “and together we help each other heal. We check up on each other, making sure we eat and take our medications.”
Yet the happiest addition to Vidro’s life has been Houdini, his service dog from NEADS (Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans). Family, friends, and doctors all believe Houdini has made Vidro softer, calmer, and more engaged in life. Since 2009, Houdini has been part of the family. “He is not a dog,” says Vidro. “He is my baby, my buddy.”
The first few years, Houdini kept Vidro stable when standing, and helped him around the house by opening doors, answering the phone, fetching shoes, and picking up fallen objects. He would sense Vidro’s pain. Now, through much rehabilitation and work, Vidro has been able to regain his independence.
Today, Vidro takes care of himself. He doesn’t need a cane and rarely loses his balance or falls. He is even able to drive again. “I never thought I would be this active again,” Vidro explains. “Especially because for so long, I depended on everyone. Returning from war, I felt I was a burden to my family.”
Struggling with dark thoughts, but staying strong
Vidro is not shy about discussing his own suicidal thoughts and struggles with depression. “When I came home sick, I thought about suicide,” he says. “I think society forgets that not all disabilities are visible. I was suffering greatly and just wanted to end my life,” he shares.
“What kept me going were my kids and thinking of them growing up without a dad. So despite the pain, I knew I had to keep fighting—for them,” he says.
Soon it became a challenge for him; he challenged himself to beat this. With time, he discovered a new perspective and will to survive. While PTSD night terrors and sleep talking still affect him, Vidro is thriving.
Heriberto Vidro is a fighter. Gentle and kind, he moves forward by appreciating the little things in life, like watching a Mets game. His new mission is to help others and be with his family: