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Blinded soldiers

A portrait photo of Graeme Turner

It's hard to be a soldier in war. It's even harder when a soldier loses their sight in a war. Leam was a soldier in Iraq. He was blinded in an explosion. He struggled with the loss of his vision. He fought with his family. He drank too much. Mike was a soldier in 1942. During the war in Papua New Guinea he discovered he couldn't see well at night. After the war he got involved with the Blinded Soldiers of Victoria. Both Leam and Mike have learned to fight through and conquer their vision loss.

Posted by: Graeme Turner, on 24/04/12

A single, crimson poppy flower.

Both men survived their war experience.

"As a result of the goggles shattering, I lost my left eye. The right eye was severely damaged", says soldier Leam about how he lost his vision in a battle in Iraq.

For Mike, who saw action during World War II, his first confrontation with a loss of vision was back in 1942. One night his army mates encouraged him to jump a trench and he realised he couldn't see it properly.

"That brought to my mind that I'm really in trouble," says Mike.

What is the experience of soldiers who have been blinded? How do they handle perhaps what is their toughest battle of all?

Leam

After work in the building industry dried up in Broome, Leam joined the armed forces and trained as a rifleman. It was rough but the course built him up. His first tour of active duty was in East Timor.

Iraq 2007

In 2007, the harsh desert climate presented itself as a much riskier situation than East Timor. In southern Iraq, Leam's company responded to reports of rockets and bombs being transported through the area.

"We drove our vehicle out thinking nothing was wrong and an improvised device with 40 kilos of explosive and shrapnel exploded in front of the vehicle," he says.

His group were spared the main projectile but were hit by smaller fragments. The blast shattered Leam's goggles and he wasn't able to see. His first thoughts were that he couldn't see because of the flash of the blast. But a mate recognised he was hurt and Leam and his group were evacuated to a local base.

The medics at the base couldn't do anything for Leam and the doctors in Baghdad were not able to help either. Leam was transferred to a hospital in Germany, where a prominent eye surgeon cleaned fragments out of his left eye. The results seemed good and it was hoped that in time Leam's sight would improve.

On returning to Australia however, another doctor told Leam he would be lucky to see light and colour.

"Naturally after hearing great news in Germany and then crap news in Australia I was a bit down in the dumps," he says.

Over time though, some level of vision would return. "I think the first kind of thing I saw and noticed properly was a flyscreen door, you know that diamond shaped security screen on the outside," he says.

Mike, Papua New Guinea, 1942

Mike's experience of war was in Papua New Guinea. It was there that Mike discovered he couldn't see too well in the dark. His army mates were sceptical and told him 'no-one sees well in the dark'.

It was only later that Mike discovered he had retinitis pigmentosa. This condition means you're born with a lack of eye pigment that leads to night blindness and a narrowing of vision, almost as though you are looking down a tube.

Battling to cope

Leam turned to alcohol and undertook a post traumatic stress recovery course. Yet he was still troubled. He made life difficult for his family including his teenage sisters. He was held up as a poster boy by the defence forces as displaying real courage but inside he was boiling.

On one fateful day, Leam plunged into a blazing row with his father. It was a turning point for him.

"The dog was scared of me because I was shouting so much. I ended up at the front of the house punching the grass." His mate came out and insisted to Leam he had much more to offer. Leam's dad joined in with his own encouraging words. The young soldier realised he couldn't do this to his family anymore.

Getting through it

Although Mike was not blinded in war, in his later years he became involved with the Blinded Soldiers of Victoria. The organisation was set up to help service personnel obtain their rightful benefits. Mike enjoyed talking to community groups about the organisation's work. He tells the story of how he was once mistaken on St Kilda Rd for a blind police officer because of his uniform and white cane. The Blind Soldiers of Victoria is now disbanded because of the dwindling number of members but a trust assisting soldiers can still be accessed through the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Mike believes in keeping active. He is enthusiastic about using a dog and his discovery of lawn bowls for blind players took him to the Netherlands and international competition.

"If you want to do something hard enough, you'll do it." says Mike.

It seems that in their own distinct ways both Leam and Mike have won through to achieve the most significant victory of all – to conquer the barriers in their vision loss.

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