Moorhead man who lost sight in Iraq War to take part in Walk for Vision
Eric Marts made it a point to take care of the soldiers he led in battle in Iraq, even as repeated roadside blasts were robbing him of his eyesight.
Now blind, the 50-year-old former Army National Guard master sergeant is still helping others, hoping to give people in the same situation - whether veterans or lifelong civilians - the same advantages.
Marts plans to walk with his guide dog, "Corporal" Deacon, at North Dakota State University on Saturday in the Fargo version of "Walk for Vision," the main fundraiser for the North Dakota Association of the Blind.
"I'm pretty blessed," Marts says matter-of-factly.
After all, the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs helped get him the training and the technology to make a life without sight more navigable, as well as his big, friendly English Labrador guide dog.
He wants to be part of the walk to raise money so that those without his support system can go to camps and get the same sort of help to ease their way through the world.
"So I guess that's a good cause," Marts said.
About half the money raised from the 14th annual "Walk for Vision" funds weeklong camp experiences at Camp Grassick near Dawson, N.D., while the other half goes to other programs to help the blind, said Allan Peterson, a co-chairman of the event.
Peterson hopes free-will donations bring in at least $6,000. He said Thrivent for Lutherans has also promised up to $1,200 in matching funds.
Gene Taylor, athletic director for NDSU, has been connected with the event for several years.
"We've been really trying to grow the numbers (at the walk) and raise awareness wherever we can," Taylor said. "Those of us with sight never truly understand the challenges they (the blind) face."
Too many explosions
Marts lost his sight after many concussions suffered in a series of explosions in combat, he said.
He served with the Minnesota National Guard in B Company of the 2/136th Infantry Combat Arms Battalion, part of the 34th Infantry Division. They were in Iraq from October 2005 to July 2007, in and around the hotspot of Fallujah.
As he puts it, he's been "blown up" twice, as vehicles he's ridden in were disabled by improvised explosive devices.
He's also been within 60 feet of exploding mortar rounds or rocket-propelled grenades on at least eight other occasions.
The intense shockwaves from those blasts had a cumulative effect, jolting his brain far too often.
In 2006, a blast went off under a vehicle in which he was riding. He then lost vision in his right eye, but convinced superiors that because he shot his rifle left-handed, he could still be effective.
He put a patch on his right eye and was able to talk his way back on duty.
The next major blast rolled his Bradley fighting vehicle, a light tank and troop carrier. Then he started losing his remaining vision quickly.
"I was going blind fast," Marts said. He was sent home in July 2007.
In coming months, he had surgeries for shoulder and neck injuries suffered in the Bradley blast. He had to give up his car keys.
"That was a hard day," Marts said.
That fall, he still had 10 percent vision in one eye - essentially seeing shades of gray. But while training at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital, a Chicago-area facility that has a specialty center for the blind, the rest of his sight slipped away.
Deacon came into his life while he was getting his medical discharge at Fort Knox, Ky., he said. An advocate from the Wounded Warrior Project asked him why he didn't have a dog.
He said it was because they were too expensive.
She told him not to worry about that.
That was on a Friday.
On Monday, he got a call from Freedom Guide Dogs for the Blind.
Two years ago, a trainer flew to Fargo-Moorhead and introduced Marts to Deacon, training him on how to handle the 2-year-old pooch.
"I had to learn how to speak Labrador," Marts quipped.
"I gave him the rank of corporal, since that's the first leadership position" for non-commissioned officers, he said. "He's definitely in a leadership position. He leads me all around."
At the Hines center, Marts learned to use "all sorts of gadgets to make our lives easier." Things like a money reader, a menu and document reader, bar code scanners with voice playbacks describing what is in cans and packages and computer programs that help the blind surf the web.
"There's a lot of technology out there, but people can't afford it," Marts said. "I was hoping that if we can bring enough awareness, if they can raise enough money, maybe they can get some of these gadgets for these people."
Marts and his wife, Bobbie, will start the walk and make a couple of laps before they head off to his job.
Marts has a radio gig with WDAY 970 AM. Every Saturday at 10 a.m., he hosts the hourlong "Heroes of the Heartland" program, with news and information for military veterans.
"I still want to be connected with what I did," Marts said. "Who else can I take care of?"
He ponders whether the radio work couldn't become another career.
"I'm not a bitter person. You just drive on. You adapt. You overcome," Marts said.
At the same time ...
"I would not wish anybody to lose their eyesight. It's such a precious thing," he said.
He's had one grandchild and another is coming in June.
"I've never seen their faces. I miss those visions so much," Marts said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583
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