Blinded by sniper fire on a tour of Iraq, Leeds veteran Simon Brown woke to find his life thrown into turmoil.
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His job, his career, his eyesight, gone in an instant. His dreams of a future, lost, along with expectations about the life he would lead.
The realisation sent him slowly slipping down a “rabbit hole” of despair, unable to see past what he had lost.
Until the sudden death of six of his friends, just weeks after the sniper’s bullet hit, shook his despondency into sharp focus. He was alive, when others were not. “I was lucky,” he said. “I hadn’t gone too far that rabbit hole before I got that kick.
“I’d been devastated. All I could think about was what I had lost - I thought I’d lost my fight. Part of me didn’t want to carry on. I got the kick I needed when I found out six friends were killed just weeks later. It could have been me, that day. I survived.
“I was here still - and there were people who weren’t going to come home.
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“I stopped thinking about what I’d lost, and started thinking about what I had left. I wasn’t a victim, I was a survivor. That was the switch.”
Mr Brown, now 39, had joined the Army in May 1997 as a mechanic in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), serving in Bosnia and Basra.
A Corporal on tour in Iraq in 2006, his life changed forever when he led a mission to recover a stranded vehicle with six soldiers on December 6.
“I’d gone out on patrol that morning, as we did every day in Basra,” he said. “We came under heavy fire.
“We went to pull out, all the dust kicked up. The driver couldn’t see, so I popped my head out of the window to see if it was clear.
“Just as I shouted ‘go, go, go’, I felt a massive smack on the side of my face. I knew I’d been shot.”
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The bullet entered his left cheek and exited through his right, causing severe facial injuries. Mr Brown was given emergency treatment in Basra and put into an induced coma.
Seventeen days later, he woke up in Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, where he was told that his left eye was destroyed and there was little hope for sight in his right eye.
“That was the point when my world fell apart,” he said. “When I heard the four words ‘You’ve lost your sight,’ it sounded to me like my life was over.”
Mr Brown, who now has 20 per cent vision in his right eye, says it is like “looking through frosted glass”. He has light perception, and can sense shapes and colours.
“I was fumbling in the dark,” he said. “But I was fortunate. My dad was ex-forces, my mum knew the Army world and I’ve got very supportive brothers.
“And my community stuck by me. They still treated me the same, and I needed that. I didn’t want to be treated any differently. I’m still the same person.”
Born and brought up in the market town of Morley, going to school at the now Woodkirk Academy, the mechanic had a close knit group of friends.
It was the strength of his community, he says, of his old schoolmates, rugby friends, and neighbours, which gave him the confidence and the belief to build a new way of life.
Having undergone rehab with Blind Veterans UK, he went to work for the charity, reaching out to other veterans who can benefit from the support they offer.
And he has now written a book, ‘Looking Forward’, with friend and writer Laurie Baker, about his childhood, time and service and his life since suffering life-changing injuries.
“When I came home from Kosovo, I was an angry young man,” he said. “After getting shot, and being very humble for a while, I had a new look at life.
“I think, looking back, maybe I am a better person for it, and my life is in a better place.
“Being a soldier, everything we did, wherever we did it, was so that people would have the freedom to do what they wanted to do,” he added. “The way my community rallied around me, that reminded me of why I did this job. It was so that people could have that community, and look out for each other.
“That was the reason I was able to rebuild my life.”