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Blind soldier's speedboat record bid for charity
PHARMACY Road, unpaved and flanked by high mud walls, lay just ahead of him.
Leading another routine patrol up one of the most bombstrewn streets in Afghanistan, he bravely marched on despite the haunting memories etched on his mind.
It was in this same district, just weeks earlier, where nearly half his platoon were injured or killed in what was the bloodiest day for a foot patrol in the history of the campaign.
Memories of his five friends who died before his eyes that day as daisy chains of IEDs exploded filled his mind.
The deafening sound of bombs, the haunting screams, the smells, the taste of blood mixed with sweat and dust and the image of gently closing his friend’s eyes tormented his senses.
There had not been enough tourniquets to put on the bodies.
And not enough stretchers or stretcher bearers to carry the fallen off the field.
Now Rifleman Paul Jacobs was clearing IEDs on the same maze of alleyways in Sangin again, clutching a hand held mine detector. And then it happened – a moment that would change his life forever that day in August 2009.
An enormous explosion from a hidden bomb suddenly went off ahead in a small alleyway, blasting a colleague. As Paul dashed to try to save him, covering his lifeless body with a blanket and desperately pulling him back while dodging deadly IEDs, he spotted a second hidden bomb which had been daisy chained to others.
A second colleague bravely coming to help then triggered a second blast and was killed instantly. Paul threw himself onto the ground but the shrapnel rained down on him, hitting him in his right eye and lodging in his brain.
Bleeding heavily from multiple injuries, he heroically dragged himself on his hands and knees to a safe mine-free area he had just cleared to make sure those coming to rescue him would not be in danger.
A few weeks later Paul, then aged 21, woke up in a bed in Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham.
He couldn’t see anything.
Lying there with fellow casualties of the conflict, Paul realised he had been blinded and had severe injuries to his arm and leg.
Paul, who served with 2nd Battalion The Rifles, said: “I came around and it was soon clear everything was in darkness. But my motto has always been the same ‘to never fear fear because fear is all around you if you fear it’, so no I wasn’t scared.
“I felt lucky to have survived.
“Doctors said I wouldn’t walk for six months but I remember a double amputee sat on the end of my bed and said that the London marathon was in a few months.
My ears and my heart then just started pounding and from that moment, that was it.
“I knew I could put myself to use by doing challenges and know that, like clearing mines in Afghanistan, people’s lives will be better because of it.
“I want to seek the highest heights.”
First, however, he had a rather special appointment – with the Queen.
For protecting his colleagues despite his own horrific injuries, Paul was awarded the prestigious George Medal presented for “acts of bravery not in the face of the enemy.”
His citation read: “His sheer personal courage and startling determination, unswerving courage, selflessness, devotion to duty and dedication to his comrades was faultless.”
Then Paul’s charity work began in earnest – and it hasn’t stopped.
He has already raised hundreds of thousands for fellow injured comrades by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, cycling 500 miles, skydiving and running marathons.
Now he has helped set up the organisation Team Escapade to create extreme challenges for both able bodied and disabled military veterans and civilians to raise money and awareness.
And a world record attempt on the Solent beckons: becoming the fastest blind man in a powerboat, a record currently set at 91.66mph.
Paul needs little prompting to reveal the source of his endless drive: it’s for the colleagues who never came home and those who are maimed and damaged.
He acknowledges that while his world is shrouded in darkness, his mind will forever replay the bloody scenes he witnessed on the frontline.
Paul, said: “I was there in the most dangerous area of Helmand Province- Wishtan.
“It all happened there. I loved the Army, it was my first love. I was a foster child and grew up fighting. I was literally the first man out on the ground and the last man in because I would be the one finding the IEDs. I asked to do that job. I thought why send someone out there with a shaky hand when you can send someone who is confident and I had an eagle eye to find anything – it is ironic now I have lost my sight.
“I have always believed if it is going to happen, it will happen and there is nothing you can do about it.”
His chest heaved and Paul sucked in more air as he prepared to recall the bloodiest day so far in the Afghanistan campaign.
His voice lowered, he added: “I was there when five men were killed outright, it was carnage.
“The taste, the smell, the sweat.
“If you have ever seen Saving Private Ryan, that’s what it was like on the day with bodies going overhead.
“Weeks later it was just another normal routine patrol. We were taking out a different regiment who hadn’t been in Afghanistan long. I was mangled that day but I don’t let it haunt me, I am too strong. I was proud to get the medal but it was for the blokes, mates, for those fallen brothers who never made it back to see their loved ones, and not just the squaddies on the ground but their families, the mothers and the wives.
“Every day they are waiting for that knock on the door and it is them that suffer the most.
“What I did was what any soldier would do and my mates they would have done the same.”
Paul, who married Louise, a nurse who cared for him in Selly Oak Hospital, admitted adjusting to his blindness has been challenging.
He said: “It’s hard not being able to just get up and do exactly what I want, when I want if that makes sense. For example, I used to enjoy running and boxing and that’s not particularly doable at the moment.”
“But that is the thing, you’ve got to give yourself time to adapt to the situation. You have to have that period where you’ve got to assess it and say this is where I want to go and I can still do the same thing. I just do it differently and I do it ten times better. That’s the thing I am determined inside even if it kills me. I will keep going.
He added: “My motto now is you don’t need sight to have vision and everyday I am living, I am living for them.
“I live on fresh air.
“I died once and I am not doing it again – not yet anyway.”
For his latest challenge Paul has been training in Southampton Water in a RIB donated by Nauti-Buoys extreme water adventures.
He has even had to pass a dangerous dunk test at Andark Diving and Watersports in Swanwick where he was harnessed into a closed cockpit, which is similar to the powerboat, and immersed under water before having to prove he could undo his straps, release the hatch and calmly swim to safety.
He will complete the challenge with Southampton racer Vee Ganjavian, of Microlink PC, in his 38ft Phantom called Fury later in the year.
Paul, who hopes to climb Everest, swim the Channel and compete in rowing at the 2016 Paralympics, said: “It is important being able to motivate and help others in the same situation as me and unite military and civilian alike.
“I’ve only ever been on jet skis on holiday but I will be the fastest blind powerboater.
“I will smash the record and I am hoping it will be on the Solent.
“The word disability should not have to come into it. Why is it not individualism? Simple, isn’t it?
“We are still human beings whatever our disability is and people should never doubt me.
“I will just go out to prove I can do it because I can.”
To support or sponsor Paul in his powerboat challenge in the Solent go to teamescapade.com
Lend your support
Paul says he will not stop taking on challenges to raise money and awareness of disabled comrades and civilians. In March he will face temperatures of -30C in a 70th anniversary expedition in Norway to honour The Second World War Heroes of Telemark with the charity that supports injured servicemen, the Pilgrim Bandits. Visit pilgrimbandits.org for more information.
The brave rifleman will raise money for the organisation again when he leaps from a plane in June to help break the world record for the number of tandem skydives in 24 hours.