This Veterans Day, November 11th, marks a rather special anniversary for me. On this day ten years ago, life decided to emplace a situation impossible to truly plan for. The events of that Veterans Day and the ten subsequent ones enabled me to fully understand why we choose to honor those who protect our freedoms.
So what cataclysmic event interrupted my life on November 11, 2004? Simply stated, an injury that changed my perception of the world.
Around 1630, my unit started to prepare to end another day patrolling the streets between the Baghdad International Airport and the International Zone. We received an alert to provide security support to the Iraqi National Guard, as they infiltrate a mosque. This meant that our mission involved locking down the external perimeter.
As a mixed patrol of up armored HMMWV’s and Bradley’s, the unit deployed itself in a staggered pattern with enough separation to maintain visual contact around the rather large block.
Shortly after arriving and establishing the perimeter, a sniper shot a dismounted Soldier in the chest. That Bradley team jumped into action, saving his life and evacuating him to the Combat Support Hospital (CSH). This marked the second casualty on the day for us, having lost one Bradley earlier due to an IED. To cover down on the position, I elected to employ my Bradley into that position.
Within an hour, the sniper scored another hit. This time, the bullet penetrated my left temple and exited through the right eye. Though the Bradley’s commander sits in the turret, I opted to expose my head in an effort to locate the shooter through a pair of binoculars. The necessity stems from some troubles we experienced with the optical system due to the sand in the region.
A 7.62mm bullet packs a punch similar to a sledge hammer. Miraculously though, this bullet failed to kill me or knock me unconscious. To this day, I can easily recall that fraction of a second before losing my sight as my Wiley-X’s started to leave my head, and my gunner reporting that I was a heap on the floor.
Two notes might be made here about the importance of training and subconscious fears. The first involves how ingrain some training really is. Shortly after I realized the gravity of the situation slumped over at the bottom of the turret, I started to feel my head to triage the damage. The training to do this stems from both the military and a couple of years worth of nursing classes. The second note about fears stems from a question of mine upon reading the CSH. As the nurses prepared me for surgery, I asked why I felt really cold. To me, this question makes sense as the media generally portrays the recently injured dying person as saying they are cold. The medical staff simply replied that I was completely naked. This made sense, but what else is there to say to people beginning to wipe you down and insert IV’s all over the place.
Ten years later, I look back at this single moment and reflect how it dramatically changed my life. No one enters into the military or even life with plans to cope and overcome these situations. Rather, these are the moments that define us and forces one to reevaluate everything. Success in these situations can only be defined by the individual living it.
We, who experienced these events, are not victims of war or circumstances, but are individuals placed in extraordinary situations. Recovering requires healing physically, psychologically, socially, and most importantly spiritually. While a start time may exist, no end point, outside of death, exists.
Over the last several years, many individuals attempted to develop training, pre/post deployment assessments, and numerous other modules, seminars, and the like. Truthfully, no amount of counseling or resiliency training ever fully prepares everyone to rebound from such traumatic losses. Every person brings a different set of beliefs, supports, and capabilities that may contribute or setback recovery, yet many still ask for that silver bullet that miraculously creates a “cure.” If you are a service provider looking for information on these topics, ask us who live it.
Looking through the last decade, four situations created a very beneficial response in my recovery. These range from accepting assistance, failing to meet a goal, pursuing education, and surrounding myself with an effective support team.
The first incident stems from my wife and parents asking for resources. They immediately started searching the moment they reached Walter Reid, and never stopped. They discovered the VA’s blind rehab program, which is open to all military and Veterans with a severe visual impairments. This enabled me to do the one thing I needed to do, rest and heal. As I stabilized and started working again, their relentless efforts uncovered many other opportunities I did not see or would even dream of looking towards.
The second fulfilled a desire to return to my unit. After witnessing my capabilities with blindness, the Commander retained me on Active Duty around August 2005. Realizing I will not deploy again, I requested a transfer into Acquisitions, enabling me to help evaluate the equipment being sent down range. My motive to remain in the Army revolved around my identity to continue progressing up the Officer ranks. Accomplishing this required me to pass as a normal Soldier, binding my blindness from all. This resulted in many bouts with depression and anger at myself as I literally stumbled and ran into things, or feelings of jealousy with every friend or relative who received a promotion or deployed. During this time, my anxieties skyrocketed, marriage nearly collapsed, trouble with sleeping, and numerous other items mirroring PTSD. Truth of the situation is that by retaining the identity as an Army Officer, I neglected my new identity as a blinded individual who needed a new path in life.
In 2008, a third opportunity arose. The Army devised a program enabling injured Soldier to receive a Masters from the University of Kansas. I immediately jumped on this initiative, graduating in 2010 with a Masters in Social Work. The educational opportunities enabled me to examine myself truthfully without any judgement. Prior to this, I only seen myself as a broke Soldier with limited possibilities in the Army. With the new knowledge, I recognized this self defeating view, and started to see a much broader world.
The last and most impactful of the assistance received stems from increasing the size of my family. The birth of my daughter transformed my priorities from selfish professional pursuits to being there for her. Secondly, two of my mentors and professors would adopt us, dramatically shifting our perspectives. Each of these individuals fill a gap in my life I did not know of. My wife and family bent over backwards to ensure my chances to thrive, but through these new additions, all of our lives forever positively changed.
Today, I can tell you the following.
- Blindness sucks, but I fully embrace it and love myself for living with it.
- I miss driving classic Chevy muscle cars, but enjoy playing with my daughter in the backseat much more.
- I miss playing paintball and numerous video games, but now utilize this time to read and expand my intellect.
- I miss wearing the uniform and leading Soldiers in combat, but I enjoy serving my fellow Veterans through their transition processes.