Can you try something for me? Just do this and then read on…Count to twenty. Easy. Quick isn’t it?
Now do the same thing again, but with your eyes closed.
Felt longer didn’t it. Time seems to slow down when your are in the dark. I’m sure you counted as quickly, and I am sure it took about the same time for you to count up to 20, but in the dark…it just felt longer.
Longer. But it was only about 15-20 seconds. But just imagine a lifetime of it. Imagine everyday being dark and black. Seeing nothing; being blind. Not only would you miss the beauty that is all around us in this fabulous world, but the time you are spending in it feels longer. More time to see…nothing.
I remember being in Afghan, and we would discuss possible and potential injuries. Particularly after someone had been in an IED explosion or in a shooting incident. It’s natural to talk about it. And one day the topic of conversation after an Afghan Soldier had been airlifted out to go to the hospital at Bastion, fell to the macabre. If you were injured…what sort of injury could you cope with and what couldn’t you cope with. Lots of people, buoyed by the news of the new prosthetic limbs said they could probably cope with losing a leg, less people thought that they could manage without an arm…but the one that surprised me…and it was the one that I said I really couldn’t cope with would be losing sight.
It was a real fear of a lot of the lads. And a real fear of mine. Still is. You see, if I were to be brutally honest I would say that the biggest fear I have in the world is dark enclosed places. Some people it’s spiders, some heights, some people it’s even clowns. But me the dark. And team that with an enclosed place and I am absolutely quaking.
I once had to face this fear. When I was a trainee in the RAF, we went away to an outward bound, adventure training place in Mid-Wales, where you get to do all sorts of great activities. Climbing, hill-walking, canoeing…and caving. In an old slate mine which is entered by a long narrow tunnel often filled quite deeply with water.
The aim of the exercise is to practice your group’s communication and team-working skills. And the instructors take you down the tunnel and then before you enter the cave system, they take your head-torches off you. They then split you into two groups and give one group the torches and the other group the batteries. You are then led about the cave system and left on your own. You then need to join together into the two small groups and then find the other group and get the batteries/torch so you can see in the dark.
It’s not just dark; it’s absolutely pitched black. Blacker than night. Blacker than…well, bloody dark anyway. It could be the brightest summer’s day outside, but absolutely no light will penetrate into the mine. To say you can’t see your hand in front of your face would be an understatement. Blacker even than a Catholic Priest’s socks.
And you stumble around inside shouting out for the rest of your team. You wave your hands in front of you in an attempt to avoid hitting the walls. You duck your head to protect it from the roof of the caves. You take tiny, tiny steps, feeling your way along, almost shuffling, hardly moving. Your breath is faster, you are on the edge of panic. You desperately reach out for something…anything that is vaguely human. Looking for the reassurance of the touch of another living being, and when you find one, by shouting and directing yourself to the sounds of his or her voice, you grasp them tightly, and you never, ever want to let go. You don’t want to be left. Alone. In the dark.
And eventually you find the other people and your get the task done and you turn the head-torches on. And then you can see in the dark. Relief. Relaxation. Calm. Your blood pressure and your stress levels drop instantly. And then you look about and see that even though you thought that the roof was very low and you would bang your head, the cave is actually massive. Like a cathedral. Huge high walls, easily 60-70 feet up. And where you expected the walls and floor to be jagged and cluttered, and you constantly thought you were going to trip and fall, they are smooth and flat and safe.
You were in no real danger. You wouldn’t have hurt yourself. You were only really afraid of the unknown. Of what you couldn’t see.
We rely on our sight. We take it for granted. We use it to give us frames of reference and safety in the real world without thinking about it. We even use the language of sight without realising it…’Watch out’…’I see what you mean’…’I don’t like the look of that’…and we go about our lives not really thinking, or maybe not wanting to think about not being able to see.
And when you are faced with the possibility of losing your sight, like we were in the arbitrary world of the IED in Afghan, or when other soldiers, sailors and airmen have been faced with that in the past, the fear becomes greater. I remember one lad who was often the lead man in a patrol. Often he would volunteer to go first and prove the route, look for the ground-sign and analyse the floor in front of him searching for clues that the enemy could have planted an IED on the path. This didn’t scare him, but what did scare him was the thought that if he saw what might be an IED he would have to determine if it was or not by getting down on the floor, and getting up close to the potential device and see if it was a bomb or if it was just some rubbish or just a stone. Because he was scared about his eyes. Losing his sight.
Like me, it was the one thing he would not have been able to cope with losing. And thankfully neither of us did. We both came home fine, without our worst fears coming to life.
But sadly that is not always the case. Throughout history, wars have damaged people’s eyes, and men and women returning from conflict have faced a future of stumbling about in the darkness. But thankfully like in the cave, there are people there for them. People who they are able to reach out to and hold and gain help and comfort. Someone who they can hold onto and who will not leave them alone.
Since the end of the First World War, St Dunstan’s which has recently changed it’s name to Blind Veterans UK, has offered help and advice and support to any ex-servicemen and women who have lost their sight. In fact it doesn’t matter when someone served or how they lost their sight; a REME engineer blinded by a sniper in Iraq, a National Serviceman in the Canal Zone of the 1950’s with a glaucoma or an ex-sailor who served in the Falklands, blinded by a car accident, as long as they have served they won’t be alone, Blind Veterans UK will be there to support them.
And like in the cave I found myself in, it is really reassuring to know that there is always going to be someone there to help. That there will be no one alone in the dark.
If you would like to read more about Blind Veterans UK or help them in their work by donating to their campaign, then please have a look at their website at http://www.blindveterans.org.uk and read about the amazing work they do to support Blind Veterans.