Diabetic blind veterans reach out to ex-Service personnel

12 November 2013 11:55

Diabetic blind veterans reach out to ex-Service personnel with diabetes related sight loss

When, in retrospect, we come to unpick the significant moments of our pasts it can seem that events often follow a causal path that, by another name, we might call fate. Surely everyone, at some point in their life, suspects an element of coincidence that suggests the events in our lives are linked by more than chance. That is, even when the outcomes of our choices lead us to places we hadn't imagined possible.
Perhaps, above all others, those with a military past - forced, as they are, to confront the reality of how one decision or fortuitous circumstance can be the difference between life and death, understand this better than most.
Nigel Whitely and Gerry Jackson are such prominent features of Blind Veterans UK's centre in Brighton some joke they are a part of the furniture of the place. Both have been members for over a decade and repay the service the charity gave them, in their darkest hours, by giving tours of the building to new members and travelling around the country giving talks to raise awareness about the organisation and the service it provides for ex-military personnel.
However, as chance was to have it, Nigel and Gerry crossed paths with Blind Veterans UK long before sight loss ushered them to its doors.
In the 1970's, when he was in the Navy, Nigel was a part of the Fleet, Air, Arm, (FAA) Field Gun crew which has competed at the royal tournament at Earl's Court since 1907. Though the event ceased running in 1999.   As part of the tradition of this tournament, members of the FAA Field Gun Crew, every year, looked after thirty to thirty five "St Dunstaners", as BV UK members were once called, for a summer camp: "so in the 70's I actually looked after "St Dunstaners":" a service which was to pay dividends when Nigel's own sight failed.
Gerry, too, was a member of the FAA Field Gun Crew, though a decade earlier, and like Nigel served as "a dog" for Blind Veterans which, as he explains, is "a term they used for people who guided St Dunstaners around because St Dunstans had an annual camp at Earl's Court."
Nigel's sight first began to fail in the early 1980's after he contracted a tropical virus while serving in Lebanon. "I had a retinal bleed in my right eye," which caused him to be: "invalided from the royal navy and then 13 years later I had a similar bleed in my left eye."
He contracted this virus when he was, in his own words: "evacuating British civilians from places where they shouldn't have been. (They were) earning lots of money. They'd been advised not to go there because of the situation and when things got a bit rough they screamed for the forces to go in and get them out."
Nigel was part of a Special Forces Air Commando unit sent to Beirut to pull these British civilians out of the Hezbollah refugee camps: "And we were actually living in a bombed out tobacco factory which has got all sorts of 'nasties' in it and they think that's where I picked up this bug."
However, in spite of the fact that the effects of this virus would, by the late 1990's, leave him almost completely blind Nigel insists he feels no bitterness about what happened.  To him it is just part of the job of being in the armed forces: "My actual job, I was a combat medical technician. If you're a service medic you shouldn't think like that anyway."
Gerry too, has some cause to feel aggrieved by the circumstances of his blindness but chooses not to view it that way. He started to lose his sight in 1999. Two or three years earlier he had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, though whether there was a link between this condition and his blindness has never been determined:
"I went to the doctor and then to the hospital and I was told I had started making extra blood cells in the eye and some of these blood cells were bursting within the eye and so they had to give me laser treatment.
"For quite a few months I was going back for laser treatment to zap these things and then I had scarring on the eye and so I basically lost the sight in my left eye and I'd got limited sight in the right eye - I could make out shapes etc. So although I had diabetes they'd led me to believe it wasn't related."
The hospital also tried to work out whether there was any link between Gerry's military service and his deteriorating sight but "they (the hospital) couldn't get the MOD to accept that there was any sort of link. I didn't get a war pension because of that. They said they weren't sure and it was possibly. It was less than 50 / 50."
The reason for this line of inquiry was that the majority of Nigel's service was taken up with intelligence gathering with the Royal Marines and there was every chance he: "could have been exposed to laser because we used laser range finders. There were lasers buzzing around all over the place with target indicators and things like that. But they were quite low power so that's why it was difficult to assume. But let's say that after one or two people (raised concerns) they started issuing protective goggles to all people who were doing things in that area."
Blind Veterans UK provides free services for blind Armed Forces and National Service veterans. To request free support for someone you know call 0800 389 7979.