Tuesday, July 06, 2010

TOP STORY>>Coping with blindness in midlife

Leader staff writer

The Jacksonville Lions Club recently hosted special guest Roger Echols, a retired Army Ranger who became blind three years ago after battling ulcers.

Echols and his wife Tracey, who also attended the meeting at the Bar-B-Que Shack, moved to Jacksonville in May from Long Beach, Calif. They moved into their own home in Sunnyside last week. “I wanted to be around family,” he said, referring to his sister, Zsa Nean Jones-Lee, of Jacksonville.

They moved when their rent increased along with crime in southern California. Tracey spends much of her time helping her husband.

“Once you go blind, the biggest hurt is losing your independence. You have to depend on someone for help,” he said. “You
can’t cook. It’s like going back to kindergarten and learning all over again.

“You’ve got to learn how to read to know what you are doing, or trust someone for everything until you’re trained to operate on your own. (I) can’t go anywhere without assistance,” he said.

“It’s hard being in a new place, where you don’t know where things are,” Echols said, noting that he has knots on his shins from falling.

His blindness came from complications related to bleeding stomach ulcers. He said he had ulcers for four months without knowing.

Echols said one day he fell, got up and took a couple of more steps and then woke up in a hospital two months later. He spent the next year and half in the hospital. He suffered partial brain damage from blood loss and a lack of oxygen.

Along with the ulcers doctors found he had a cyst the size of a softball in his back.

He spent two months at a convalescent home.

During that time he worked as a freelance computer technician installing a computer system at a house in Los Angeles. On the third day of programming the system, he said everything went black for 10 minutes. Every day the darkness grew, and four months later, his vision was completely gone. His optic nerves had died.

“On good days I can see light and dark. Most of the time I see black,” Echols said.

He wears dark sunglasses because ultraviolet light hurts his eyes. He said that sunlight makes him feel as if he had been hit with a bat.

Now he touches everything in a room to make a topographical map in his head.

“If someone moves something, it feels like I’m lost again. It throws you way off. You are following the map in your head,” he said.

“I’m his eyes,” Tracey said. “I’m very protective.” She’s also still getting adjusted to his blindness. “He holds on to me for balance. I have to let him know about stairs and where they are.”

Her husband said, “She has to tell me to step up, step down, when to duck and how far to go.”

The VA paid for a folding walking stick for him, a clock for his home and a digital book reader. He wears an atomic wristwatch that reads him the time.

Echols is learning to read Braille.

He encourages veterans who have sight problems to contact the VA or the Braille Institute. “Please seek them, they have so many services for the visually impaired,” he said.

He discussed the frustrations of being visually impaired, but he’s faced tough challenges before as an Army ranger.

“In a crowded room I hear everything coming at me at once,” he said. “You have to learn how to pick out what to listen to out of the jumble.

“Touching is a trip,” he said, “Anything that touches your face is spooky.”

He said, “I didn’t want to be a bum and pick up cans. I didn’t want to be a burden on nobody. I felt worthless. I felt like Captain Dunsel.”

“I want to earn a living instead of have it handed to me,” possibly teaching those who are recently blinded, he said.

Echols plans to write a book about serving in the military.

“Before I went blind I started it. Page one to the end is in my head,” he said.

He was in the Army for 22 years and served three years in the Reserves. He retired from the Army in 1999 as a master sergeant. He was in the 101st Airborne Air Assault Division.

He said he started out as a missile technician, but joined the infantry. When he re-enlisted three years later he moved to the Rangers.

He explained that Rangers rescue other teams if negotiations have been unsuccessful.

He said he had 1,700 parachute jumps as a Ranger and 16 HALO (high-altitude low-opening) jumps. The HALO jumps required oxygen when jumping from the plane.

“You can see the curve of the Earth and the stars. I miss it all so much,” he said.

Echols was involved in 19 peacekeeping missions in South America during the 1980s.

He fought child soldiers in the Colombian jungles before Desert Storm. He spoke about having to kill a child who had a C-4 and an AK-47 on a suicide mission.

“Either I drop him, or he would drop our team,” Echols said.

“I still see that little boy’s face. It was about survival,” he said.

“These people are willing to kill you. It will change you. War definitely changes you,” he said.

Echols has flashbacks from fighting.

He served in Iraq and in Kuwait during Desert Storm.

“It was fun and dangerous, because of a lot of friendly-fire accidents,” he said.

He said the Army had a lot of new equipment but not enough old soldiers to train the younger ones as much of the older military staff had retired.

He continued, “As rangers we can crawl in the sands for days. When you get to your objective, kill everything in sight, except the package.

“I would always call my mom before each mission and she said, ‘I don’t care what it takes or what you have to do, come home.

Don’t die over there,” Echols said.

He said over his career, he rescued a couple hundred people. During the Gulf War, he said he rescued about 30 people, including officers.

After getting out of the service, he earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering.

He worked at Forsythe Inter-national for a year and half before working for himself as a computer technician and repairman.

He has seven children from a previous relationship. He is going to be a grandfather next month. Tracey has four children.