Soldiering on against all odds

Soruce: ST: Oct 10, 2010

G, a commando, remains strong after an accident turned his life upside down
By Lee Wei Ling
G is my patient and my friend. His story is one that many of us can learn from, and with his permission, I am sharing it here.

G said I could use his name, but I decided not to. He also typed a narrative of the important events of his life and I will quote him where appropriate. Because I have intermixed G’s voice with mine, the sequence of this ‘story’ may appear somewhat disjointed. But I think G’s own words make a stronger impact than if I had paraphrased him. I have edited him only slightly.

G has always enjoyed challenges. When he was enlisted for national service, he told officials that if he was not allowed to be a commando, he would not do his NS. As a result, he was allowed to train to be a commando when he enlisted in December 1990. He passed his commando course a year later before proceeding to Officer Cadet School. He proudly writes: ‘I have been a Commando Officer by vocation since 1992.’

He was promoted every two or three years until he suffered a severe head injury in an accident in November 2000 while training. Two speedboats collided and he hit his forehead against the edge of one of the boats.

He was in a coma for 10 days and stayed in Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) for a month. When he first emerged from the coma, he was like a baby. He had to learn to walk, talk and feed himself all over again.

Then he was transferred to Ang Mo Kio community hospital where he stayed for two months. During this time, every day, two commandos would visit him. They would walk with him, make him climb steps, do push-ups and joke with him. G said to me with a smile: ‘I was previously their trainer and had often teased them. Now the relationship is reversed.’

By the time he was discharged on Valentine’s Day in 2001, he could even run.

‘I had suffered an injury to my frontal lobes,’ he reports. ‘The recovery was hard and difficult. As a result of my training as a commando – that intense fortitude to complete all missions (that commandos are imbued with) – I was able to overcome most if not all of the problems due to my injury.’

His daughter, his only child, was born in March 2001.

‘The most difficult problem was emotional. When I was injured, my then wife was in the third trimester of her pregnancy. ‘For better or for worse’ was the vow we had taken. She had been a good wife until things turned bad.

‘During my recovery, I was diagnosed to have epilepsy. I would also burst out in anger, so I signed up for an anger management course. I was asked to invite my spouse to accompany me to my ‘anger classes’. She flatly refused.

‘She said, ‘I am not the one with brain injury. Why should I go?’

‘My daughter was the reason I was able to pull myself out of depression. I was the first to hold her hand when she was delivered at Gleneagles Hospital.

‘I returned to work in June 2001. Just prior to the accident, I had fulfilled all the requirements needed to be promoted to a major. During the time when I was in TTSH, unknown to me, my commander had asked my father whether he should give me the promotion. My father told him that he should give it to me if I deserved it. In July 2001, I was promoted to Major in recognition of the work that I had put in as an army officer prior to the accident.

‘It has been 10 years since my accident. The SAF has given me, in terms of medical benefits as well as salary and bonuses, up to $1 million. If I had sued the SAF, I would have been worse off. I am grateful for the camaraderie of my fellow commandos and the understanding of the SAF. I am now employed to look after reservist commandos, a duty I am good at as I am senior enough to talk to civilian NSmen and mitigate the problems they might have.

‘After the episode when my wife declined to accompany me to the anger classes, she frequently went out at about 9pm and returned only at 3am. Then, in 2006, she filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. I won joint custody of my daughter. My capable parents looked after her when I was at work.

‘Recently, my ex-wife remarried and moved to Hong Kong. She has also applied to vary the court order on the basis that she has remarried and has a more stable family life, and now wants to take back the task of looking after my daughter.

‘What I can provide is limited, and I do not want to be the stumbling block in my daughter’s growth. Our separation will be heart-rending for both my parents and me, but I guess that we will get over it and allow her to grow to the best of her abilities.

‘This accident has taught me lots about life and relationships. There is no perfect marriage or job in this world. Religion’ – G is a Catholic – ‘has also assisted me in dealing with my emotions and the setbacks in my life. Currently, I am trying to upgrade myself to at least a combat-ready soldier again. It is not easy – but then, what is in my current life?’

G is not entirely normal. He still walks with a slight limp, his speech is slightly slurred, and it would be obvious even to a layman that the content of his speech is somewhat childish. Yet I cannot help but like him.

I understand this man better than most doctors would, for G and I share some traits. If I had served in NS, I too would have chosen to be a commando. In April 2003, I went hiking on some of the toughest trails in Hawaii alone. At that time, I had just been discharged from hospital from recurrent unexplained episodes of intestinal obstruction.

A friend wrote to me: ‘I wonder at the sanity of your going hiking when you have been in and out of hospital almost every other day.’

I replied: ‘For some of us, it takes a streak of insanity to make life worth living.’

When I told G this, he laughed and nodded in agreement.

It was wise of the SAF to have taken care of G despite his injury. Other soldiers would thus trust that the same would be done for them if ever a similar misfortune were to befall them.

One for all, all for one – that should be the operative principle among Singaporeans.