As they always seem to, the explosion erupted out of nowhere. One second there was nothing, the next a ballooning cloud of dust and grit, heat and noise, shrapnel and pressure enveloped the soldier and he disappeared from view. The force of the detonation climbed up his body at supersonic speed, shards of metal hacking and tearing at the soft surfaces of his body, ripping into limbs, puncturing the torso, catching his helmet and pulling it violently from his head, the chin strap offering only token resistance before being torn away.
In the immediate moment following the blast, the casualty’s shocked colleagues tried to gathered their rattled senses. Then they came to help, their priority, their only aim, to keep death at bay. To apply bandages and tourniquets, tend the devastated injuries and plug the wounds, essentially to stop the man bleeding out, losing the fluids that sustain life.
Although terribly hurt the young soldier is still conscious, aware that around him a small army of others are helping him cling to existence and reacting to his moans and murmurings.
“Its ok mate – you’ll be fine – we got you buddy – just hold on – just stay with us – fight mate”.
The words are encouraging but the façade of optimism is paper thin, those who are tending the casualty continue to reel from the horrific revelation of what a weapon of war can do to one of their friends. Now it becomes a matter of time. The blood can be staunched but the real work falls to the professionals: the doctors and nurses. And to get to them the helicopter is needed.
And there in the debris and the dirt of the battlefield, as he awaits evacuation, the soldier is becoming aware of how seriously he has been hurt.
“I can’t see.” The voice is pitiful, a whimper, a noise like a child might make, “Please help.”
“Its ok mate I’m still here, I won’t leave you” the young infantryman’s best mate reaches across and takes hold of a hand, squeezing it lightly, an act of gentleness and compassion, that hides a terrible fear for his pal’s future.
For so many years now, rarely a day passes without some miraculous, uplifting story appearing in the media about how a member of the armed forces has come to cope with so-called life changing injuries incurred in the backstreets of Basra, or the Helmand Green Zone. Yet many forget those who received terrible injuries in The Falklands, Aden, the troubles of Northern Ireland and the many peace keeping operations around the world such as Bosnia and Kosovo.
Some of the victims of war have soared to great success: climbing, skiing, exploring, completing rallies and becoming Olympians. Many others have simply returned to some sort of normality thanks to the medical and technological breakthroughs born of conflict. Prosthetics are state of the art. Mental distress has been recognised and is treated. But so far no one has invented a cure for the sightless. Thus far, losing the ability to see is essentially irrevocable, and deeply traumatic. While the activities of such charities as Help for Heroes, Combat Stress and the Royal British Legion is wonderful and admirable perhaps some of the most critical and challenging work undertaken with scarred ex-servicemen is provided by Blind Veterans UK.
Formerly know as St Dunstan’s the organisation was established in 1915 to cater for the avalanche of soldiers returning from the trenches, robbed of their vision. Its aim was to give training and assistance to this particular group of veterans so they could eventually lead as productive a life as possible without further charitable support.
Those who received – and continue to receive – are categorised only on the basis of need. It matters not how or where people have been afflicted by blindness, be it on the battlefield or Salisbury Plain. It is enough for them to have worn the uniform of this country whether in time of war or peace, as a national serviceman, conscript or modern volunteer.
The ethos of the charity is clear and simple: that no ex-serviceman or woman should suffer their disability alone. If losing their sight is the greatest dread of many soldiers, sailors and airmen, then Blind Veterans UK is the saving grace.
Long after the battle is over. As the uniform is hug up for the last time, there will always be those who will dedicate themselves to support our veterans who have given so much for their country.
For you and me the question is simple, ‘what can we do to support those who support our vision impaired service veterans’.
So start by clinking on noonealone.org.uk and find out what Blind Veterans UK does and how you can support them.
The young infantryman is no longer there, but thanks to @BlindVeterans there is still someone to hold the veterans hand, squeezing it lightly, an act of gentleness and compassion, ensuring dignity for those who lost their sight in the service of their country.