2010–2015*CZECH REPUBLIC

Aftertaste: The Bitter Side of War

The story of a Czech war veteran Jiri Schams, suffering from a brain injury

Czech Command Sergeant Major Jiri Schams was seriously wounded in Afghanistan in 2008. Metal shrapnel protruded into his helmet and injured his brain. For several weeks he fought for life and was able to survive thanks to his physical power and great medical care. In his home country he became a synonym of new age war veteran, celebrated and decorated by medals he also became a great article in hands of politicians and their election campaigns. But his case has also exposed a fact that Czech society was completely unprepared for the reality of soldiers returning from was conflicts live, dead or injured.

The Army did not shine as an example employer when Jiri was released from service couple of months after his injury – the official reason inability to pass physical tests but, more likely, they simply didn't know how to care for a soldier wit a wounded brain. There was no historical experience. In the recent history Jiri Schams was the first surviving war veteran with a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

 

Five years after the injury Schams lived alone in an unfit and disabled-unfriendly house in one of Prague's tower block neighbourhoods. Unable to move alone he was totally dependent on people around him. The half-a-centimetre piece of metal has stripped him of all coordination skills which people learn from birth. It is difficult to comprehend what a physically healthy and strong man must have felt unable to drink alone from a glass and needing to focus on swallowing every piece of meal to prevent choking himself to death.

 

Jiri Schams had a big dream: he wanted to learn to walk again because he believed that would make him independent. Four years from his injury he teamed up with professional physiotherapists and after a year's training he could see a significant improvement even though the healing wasn't as fast as Jiri would have wished.

Thanks to a non-existent program of after care for soldiers with TBI he lost precious time. Untrained btain loses its elasticity very quickly and as its synapses are harder to renew it makes it harder to learn. And learning was critical for Jiri's dream to return to self-sufficient  life.

This dream has definitively vanished on 7th January 2015 when the former elite soldier died. He wasn't killed by the shrapnel but by pancreatic cancer in time when he started making new plans and making steps to return to life..

 

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Brain injuries are a phenomenon of new age war conflicts. Soldiers are greatly protected with bullet-proof vests, kevlar helmet but laws of physic are still valid. Strong vibrations and impacts after explosions cannot be avoided. They leave psychological traumas deep in sub conscience which will reveal themselves after return to civil life.

Soldiers become captives of their own head.

And, unfortunately, more and more of them cannot free themselves from this prison.

Translation: David Sládek

An independent photojournalistic project of a Czech photojournalist Petr Toman covering social issues within East and Central Europe