Central and East Europe photojournalism
Les than a year after injury Jiri Schams was released from service – officially for not passing physical tests. “I thought I would stay in the Army, after all I was a war veteran. I had a lot of experience and wanted to present them to young soldiers as it is common in the West. That the Army will get rid of me so soon was unexpected.”
Damaged coordination centre derailed Jiri from his self-sufficient life. To drink a glass of water or eat became a very difficult logistical operation which required full focus.
Support of hands and legs of other people was critical for the ex elite service man.
CT image of the shrapnel. Doctors were not willing to remove the half a centimetre piece of metal which has pierced through Jiri's brain. The shrapnel became encapsulated and didn't move. Surgery would be bigger risk than life with the 'calm' shrapnel in his head.
Hard work in the gym was paying off. Jiri's coordination started improving as well as his fitness. But he could never work out for too long and had to rest often. His mood and psychological state was also affecting him.
At home Jiri could move in a walker frame but it wasn't very safe without an assistant. To walk on his own, which was his dream and aim, he never managed again.
The helmet that Jiri Schams wore during the explosion. It would stop the metal shrapnel easily as would an anti-shrapnel collar, but that he was missing. Nothing stopped the shrapnel to pierce his head from the bottom.
Hospital was an all-familiar place for Jiri.
In 2014 Jiri underwent an operation on his left eye. Doctors centred his pupil so he could stop tilting his head back when looking forward. This was also affecting his balance.
Physiotherapists Martin Janoud and Sarka Smiskova. Two most important people who stood behind the great progress Schams had made in his last two years.
Every day work out and constant drill managed to lift the forty-two year old veteran from a wheelchair even if just for a moment and only where he could find some support. Jiri never managed to walk alone again. Even in the walker frame he had to be under watch of his assistant.
11th November is celebrated as a Day of war veterans in the Czech Republic. Without greater interest of the public or politicians who decide about sending Czech soldiers to foreign missions. Jiri Schams liked that day, one could see that monument Vitkov, where commemorations took place, was filling him with pride.
By the end of summer 2014 doctors found and confirmed that Jiri Schams had a pancreatic cancer. Unfortunately neither operation nor chemotherapy could help him.
Doctors did nor recommend active training as every injury posed a risk of great complications. Most of the time Jiri spent at home.
Three months after the cancer was diagnosed Schams weighed only 65 kilograms.
Jiri's sickness required several hospitalisations.
Two weeks before Christmas of 2014 Jiri's state deteriorated. He suffered with bedsores and stayed in bed at home.
Dozens of his friends came to say farewell.
One transport to hospital was his last. He would never come back home.
Former elite soldier died peacefully on 7th January 2015. His family and closest friends were with him.
Although Jiri Schams had been out of service for several years he was granted an army funeral with all honours. Czech defence minister Martin Stropnicky was one of many who came to pay tribute.
Two Gripen fighter jets and fight helicopters flew over Prague to pay respect.
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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..
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