I joined the Army in July 1987, entering The Honourable Artillery Company, which is aligned to the customs, dress and traditions of the Grenadier Guards.
Just before going on leave in May 1998, I decided to have a night out on the town with a colleague and good friend of mine in London, where we were based. We decided to call it a night at around 1am. We left the club we were in and waited outside to see if we could flag a taxi down.
‘Nearby an argument developed between two men and a young woman. Very quickly it turned violent towards the young woman and there was no time to call for help. I ran across the road to help the woman who was now being assaulted by both men. Having managed to free the young lady and pull her to safety, my friend and I restrained the two men, determined that they should be handed to the police.
Across the road was a doorman from the club. We called out for him to call the police; he went back into the club. A minute or so later, he came back with a group of around 20-25 people. However, it soon became apparent that they were not there to help us – but to help the two men on the floor.
I was violently assaulted by the group
I remember trying to protect myself by rolling into a ball with my hands and arms over my head, but this proved to be worthless. I began to drift in and out of consciousness wishing it would end - then someone drove his fingers into my eyes.
It wasn’t until the next morning that the extent of my injuries became apparent. I was taken straight to Moorfields Eye Hospital. Due to the trauma to my eyes, both eyes had severe bleeding which caused both retinas to detach.
Over the next seven months I endured nine agonising eye operations that I hoped would save my sight. But in December 1998 my consultant sat me down to tell me that there was nothing else they could do, and advise me that they were placing me on the ”National Blind Register.”
At that point my world fell apart. The realisation that my eyesight would never be the same again, that I would lose my career and that all of my hopes and dreams for a full recovery were gone forever… It felt too much to handle.
Life had changed beyond recognition
I have been left with around 6-8 per cent of my vision remaining, so I am only able to see daylight in my left eye, and my right is only capable of seeing things very close up and generally blurred.
The biggest initial problem I faced was frustration with my condition. Not only could I not drive any more, but I even struggled making a cup of tea without burning myself. I was unable to tell if clothes were clean, and could not read my mail.
I was a very independent person and did not ask for help easily. Over the next 2-3 years, I became very depressed and angry. I could not and would not accept that my life had changed. Before losing my sight, I never realised just how much we take for granted. All of a sudden I was struggling even to go to the shops on my own, as I couldn’t cross the road, read labels or in some cases find the shop I wanted.
I missed my friends and the banter. Having gone from an environment where you live and work very closely with your colleagues to sitting at home with no prospects, no self-confidence or independence, it was quite a culture shock for me, so I began drinking heavily.
‘My escape through alcohol began to take its toll. I didn’t realise just how much it was harming both me and those around me. In truth I was becoming more and more depressed. Something had to give. Either I was going to take my own life and end the misery, or I could decide that I wanted to live, accept my disability and come back fighting… Thankfully, I chose the latter.
With help, I began to turn my life around
I found the inner strength to seek help rebuilding my life. I embarked on a long period of rehabilitation with a charity known then as St Dunstan's [now Blind Veterans UK]. They offer life-changing support to ex-servicemen and women who suffered significant sight loss since leaving the armed forces.
‘Although they were able to guide me in terms of support, adaptive equipment and vital living skills, I had to learn to embrace change and accept that my life was by no means over - merely different.
Facing exciting new challenges…
‘Blind veterans UK (St Dunstan's) were keen to prove that I could still do some of the things that I could before losing my sight. One of these activities was Skiing.
I agreed to head to the Alps with a group of St Dunstaners, convinced that I would be unable to ski at all.
The first couple of days were pretty dreadful, until I realised that I had to ski the way I was being instructed and not my way.
Also on the trip was a fellow St Dunstaner by the name of Billy Baxter. Billy had set a World Record of 164 mph for a blind person, riding a Kawasaki Ninja motorbike. Billy and I got talking about World Records one night, and it was then I decided that I wanted to set a world record on skis.
It was then suggested that I apply for a trial with the British Disabled Alpine Ski Team. The trials went well, and I was selected to represent Great Britain.
I trained seven days a week in just about every condition imaginable, rain, snow, sun, wind, ice, slush – you name it, I skied in it, and the rest of the Speed Skiing World Cup community thought I was mad.
In April 2006 all my hard work and dedication paid off. At 11.20am I started my descent on the world’s inaugural Blind Speed Skiing World Record and hit a speed of 162.45 Kmh or 100.94 mph. In November that year, I set my second world record, this time indoors in The Netherlands - reaching a speed of 90.7 Kmh or 56.36 mph.
An inspirational new life
As well as Blind Veterans UK, I have received fantastic support from two organisations listed here on myhealthlondon.
The first is Royal British Legion Industries (RBLI). I struggled to find employment since my early retirement from professional sport in 2009 (due to the credit crunch impacting sponsorships), and the RBLI were able to offer me a space on their Lifeworks Programme, helping me to find a suitable career path.
The second organisation is The Poppy Factory, which specialises in working with disabled Veterans in finding suitable and sustainable employment.
Helping to make a difference
If I could give one piece of advice that may help a fellow Veteran, it would be this: never be afraid to ask for help.
I for one understand how embarrassing or degrading it can feel to admit to others that you’re not coping well. But believe me – life can be made so much easier when we accept our situations and meet our demons head on.
Since taking up my role both here at the NHS and at the Oswald Stoll Foundation veterans’ charity, I have been determined to make a real difference in the way that Veterans can access help and support.
myhealthlondon is just one of the ways in which Veterans and clinicians can find specialist help for those who have served as part of HM Armed Forces. I am immensely proud to have served my country, and I am equally as proud to serve you, the Veteran.
If what I do here helps to ease the anguish and stress of a fellow veteran in need, then it’s all been worthwhile.