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The Bitter side of war

In 2008, First Lieutenant Jiří Schams suffered severe injuries from a human bomber attack in the Afghan Gereshk.

That was when shrapnel penetrated his helmet and lodged in his brain, badly damaging it (his ocular muscle, stability and coordination). For several weeks he fought for his life, and it was only thanks to his physical shape and top-notch medical care that he could make it and survived. He became the synonym for a new age veteran.

Celebrated and decorated, he was a welcome face in politicians’ pre-election campaigns. In Czech Republic’s modern history, he had the status of the first (and until recently also the only) war veteran that managed to survive a traumatic brain injury.

The reality was different, though. Harsh. Five years after his injury, the former soldier found himself living in an unsuitable apartment in a wheelchair-inaccessible building in a housing estate out in Prague’s suburbs. Unable to move on his own and in need of permanent assistance. All thanks to a half-centimetre piece of metal that took away his coordination, something man learns from childbirth.

It is hard to fathom what an otherwise physically fit and strong man must have been going through when he could not drink out of a glass by himself and each bite was a constant struggle to concentrate and swallow right so he would not choke on food.

Jiří Schams had a big dream – of learning how to walk again. He saw it as something to help him be able to take care of himself and become more independent. Four years after his injury, he began his unrelenting physiotherapeutic treatments. And within one year, his condition showed considerable progress, even though he was not getting better as fast as he wished for. However, his hopes were dashed in 2015 when Schams died of pancreatic cancer.

Traumatic brain injuries have become a phenomenon, a symptom of new age war conflicts. Even with the soldiers being perfectly protected by gear like bullet-proof vests and kevlar helmets, the laws of physics still apply. There is no protection from blast injury and its impact on the brain during an explosion. Let alone the psychological traumas tucked away into the deep recesses of the subconscious that only make it to the surface upon their return back to their lives as civilians. The soldiers are literally taken captives by their head.

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