19 February 2011

From blindness back to combat - this time, as a platoon leader

Second Lt. Peter Sprenger lost an eye in Iraq but returned to active duty after completing a college degree. Above, he was working with his platoon in Deh Yak, Afghanistan. Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times.

"From 2002 through June 2010, according to a database on American combat trauma, 1,735 troops suffered eye wounds because of explosions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Of these, five American troops permanently lost sight in both eyes and 122 others lost sight in one eye."

While the last two numbers are relatively low due to the implementation of protective eyewear there are cases, like that of 2LT Sprenger's, where injuries are sustained in the relative safety of the FOB.

After writing a recent article about about eye injuries, C.J. Chivers of the NYT At War blog didn't even have to leave Afghanistan to research a follow up story.

By any reasonable measure, Specialist Peter Sprenger, a radio operator in an Army infantry company, could easily have been dead. It was Dec. 19, 2003, in Talafar, Iraq. An Iraqi man driving an explosives-laden car had breached his company’s perimeter. American soldiers fired at him with light machine guns, but the driver accelerated toward the company command post.

Specialist Sprenger had not been inside the post. When gunfire erupted he knew he had to get to the radios. He began sprinting toward the tent as the attacking driver gathered speed, headed to the same place. The specialist did not have time to put on his protective kit. He wore no body armor, helmet or ballistic eye protection. And now man and bomb were converging.

When Specialist Sprenger and the vehicle were perhaps 50 feet apart, the car exploded, disappearing in a thunderous flash. The blast wave and shrapnel slammed into the specialist’s side. He was blown from his feet to the ground. Blinded, bleeding heavily, almost stunned, he somehow remained conscious, at least for a while.

As he was evacuated to the United States, he was one of those soldiers who had lost sight in both eyes. For weeks he was fully blind. Doctors worked on his other wounds. His body was laced with shrapnel, and, he said, “I also required a bone graft into my jaw, six teeth implants and retinal reattachment and cornea transplants three times.”

With time and treatment, the sight to his left eye was restored. But on his right side, he said, “the eye surgeries ultimately failed.” Sight in that eye had been lost.

Read about 2LT Sprenger's road to recovery and return to active duty - and combat - here.

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