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Steve Baskis: Profile of a Survivor at 19,000 Feet

DARK VICTORY: Three years ago, Baskis, then a 22-year-old U.S. Army infantryman, was permanently blinded by a bomb while serving in Iraq. Since then, his life has been a series of challenges, many of them of his own making—including a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak.

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Baskis woke from the fog of narcotic dreams and found his family stationed in his room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. With his eyes still bandaged and his body wrapped in pain, he didn’t know the full extent of the damage until a doctor told him, too bluntly for his family’s liking, that he was blind and would never see again. His father sat down on the bed, lightheaded and nauseated, as he considered the life ahead for his boy.

Baskis didn’t move or speak. But the next day, he was issued a white cane, and he wanted to know when he could leave Walter Reed for the rehabilitation hospital. “When I was lying there, I thought, Fuck this. I’m not going to feel sorry for myself,” he tells me. “There’s lots of blind people. I’m going to be the badass blind guy.”

So in between multiple surgeries to clean out wounds and repair his sinuses and the damaged blood vessels and nerves in his left arm, he walked the hallways, bumping into walls, teaching himself to navigate a darkened world. Bandages still covered some of his wounds, which included two bone-deep burns on the back of his neck that would heal into raised scars shaped like lips. The kiss of death, he calls them.

After two months at Walter Reed, Baskis moved to Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital just west of Chicago, one of ten VA hospitals for rehabilitation of the blind. In daily classes, he learned to negotiate congested streets, ride public transportation, read Braille, prepare simple meals, and use all the technology available for the blind. With a computer that speaks to him, he blogs and e-mails, which is an exercise in memory. He must hold sentences and paragraphs in his mind or go through the sluggish process of constantly having everything read back to him. The bigger hindrance is typing with just his right hand, since he doesn’t have enough dexterity with his left. But when he uses his iPhone, his right fingers dance across the dark screen, and he has sped up the phone’s “voice” so fast that the words are nearly indecipherable as it spits out responses and reads back e-mails.

He takes pride in being physically and mentally resilient, and he wanted others to see this. He’d recover faster. He’d be stronger. He wouldn’t feel sorry for himself. At one point he was taking 16 medications a day, but then he flushed them down the toilet: painkillers, antianxiety pills, sleep aids. “They told me all that medicine was something I needed,” he says. “And look at me. I’m doing fine.” While at Walter Reed, he sometimes heard other blind soldiers on his floor weep or scream in frustration or anger. But Baskis is measured, deliberate, and pragmatic, and he treated recovery the same way he had prepared for war. “I told myself all the time I could get killed, I could get injured,” he says. “And I think that really helped me. Some guys just don’t think about it, that it can happen to them.”

He figured there was one inescapable consequence that determination couldn’t change: He would be alone in life; no woman would want him, broken and sightless. But hanging out around the nurses’ station he met Sarah, a petite teacher of orientation and mobility, the foundation course in navigating blind. Another soldier, who had some sight, noticed this and told Baskis how cute she was. For Baskis, the attraction arose from Sarah seeing past his injuries and wanting to know about him. Their brief hallway chats became long conversations, and when Baskis left the hospital after four months, he stayed in Chicago to be with Sarah. They married on a beach in Mexico in 2010 and now live in a Glen Ellyn townhouse with Sophie, their English bulldog.

Baskis can hear in some people’s voices that they feel put out when he asks for help, say, finding the bathroom. Others dote or think he’s incapable on his own. They grab his arm to guide him down the street or insist he take an elevator instead of the stairs. Sarah does none of these things. Watch them in their home, and it’s easy to forget he’s blind. They are simply a young couple, teasing and caring.

He often wakes before Sarah, but without any visual cues, he sometimes doesn’t know if he’s asleep or awake. If it’s not the voice from his phone alarm telling him the time, ambient sounds alert him to wakefulness. At home, he can estimate the time from the sound of traffic and the warmth of the sun coming through the window. This is a life of long pauses, using his remaining senses to construct a framework, an understanding of the world and his ability to move through it. “I’ve become a more patient person,” he says. “That’s all you can do. Just step back, take a deep breath, and say that’s life. Shit happens. Do what you can. Do the best you can.”

He can’t drive. He can cook only the simplest meals. He can barely tie his shoes. But those are just logistics and annoyances; he’s more interested in the mental barriers. Before the explosion, he wanted a career in Special Forces, an elite unit whose members undergo punishing selection and training and perform some of the military’s most dangerous missions. He had wanted to test himself, to understand his capabilities. The challenges today are different, but the intent is the same. “Everything scares me,” he says. There’s uncertainty and lack of control in climbing a rock face or crossing a busy street. But the fear drives him.

“It’s about knowing yourself, knowing how far you can push yourself,” he says.

“What have you learned about your limits?” I ask.

“I don’t know. I haven’t found any yet.”

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