Meet Chris Nowell
Hero Stories is an original Medical Travel Compared blog series. It highlights the extraordinary work done by genuine heroes – people who have dedicated a part of their lives to helping others in need. For this piece, we interviewed Chris Nowell who was left partially blind after suffering severe head injuries whilst serving for the army in Afghanistan. During his recovery he gained support from Blind Veterans UK and, since recovering, he has successfully trained to be a landscape photographer; investing time into teaching others this skill.
From a young age Chris had always known joining the army was what he wanted to do; spending his childhood with his brother dressed in camouflage, playing with pretend guns.
And when his brother joined the army, it further confirmed his decision to join the same regiment – King’s Royal Hussars, based at Tidworth.
His career started in August of 2001, a month before the attacks of 9/11. A devastating event which led to the British forces being involved with Afghanistan just 2 months later.
After postings in Northern Ireland, and Iraq, Chris too went to serve in Afghanistan There he became the victim of a Taliban attack. An event which changed his life forever.
Afghanistan September 2007.
A large stone wall built with rubble and rocks surrounds the army base. Chris was off-duty. Between shifts in a tent with two other members of his regiment. A normal thing to be doing when on stand-down.
What happened next would change his life forever.
An RPG (rocket propelled grenade) struck the wall directly behind him, exploding into the tent. It was Chris himself who took the brunt of the explosion. The attack fractured his skull.
He was left fully blind in his right eye, with a loss of peripheral vision in the left. But in this moment, all Chris could think of was his mates - fearing for their safety. They were ok.
Recovery saw Chris undergoing at least three major operations, alongside a series of intensive rehabilitation for his sight and cognition.
And the support advanced once he joined Blind Veterans UK in March 2008.
What happened next
Recovery from injury proved difficult at times for Chris, especially in the early days when he was being re-taught to read, write, touch and type. This led him to feel down and disengaged.
As part of his rehabilitation with Blind Veterans UK, Chris attended many classes, including those in IT.
It was his instructor at the time, David, that noticed his withdrawal, and decided to introduce him to the world of photography.
Handing him a camera, explaining his own experience with landscape photography, he instructed Chris to take it home and “have a go”.
“At this point, I wasn’t leaving the house. I had no motivation and I had very little to look forward to. Luckily, I had my family, my wife, and kids, but apart from that there was nothing going on in my life.” Chris explained.
Weeks later, Blind Veterans started running a photography course, led by Dave.
“I attended the first week’s course and really enjoyed it. Everyone had a brilliant time.” Says Chris
He very quickly picked up the necessary skills, explaining how there was nothing like this in his interest before.
Photography was his focus and this course allowed him to learn new things.
Dave retired from teaching at Blind Veterans – and the course needed a new leader.
Somebody with a love for the craft. Somebody who could inspire others. Somebody who knew what it was like to have their sight taken away, and to not let that take their grit, too. And somebody who knew how to work a camera, of course.
Chris stepped up. Advancing the skillset of the older members who had more basic photography levels. Motivating them to learn and improve. And his teaching did not stop there.
“I now help teach other blind veteran members in both Llandudno and Brighton.”
He has not only continued with these classes but is also the photographer for the public events hosted by Blind Veterans UK – which helps the charity to save money.
“In my local community, there are a number of veterans. Eventually, I want to organise a veteran’s class in my area, with the idea to then push this out to create a landscape photography veterans group.”
“I know a lot of members like myself, who achieve so much from landscape photography.”
“It would be amazing to organise a group of people who are like myself and see them progress and improve like members of Blind Veterans have seen me change for the better”, Chris said.
Alongside teaching, Chris has taken up public speaking, sharing his journey with others, in the hope to inspire and motivate those who may be going through a similar situation.
What awareness can we take from this?
“I suppose this question really comes in two parts. The first thing is awareness for blindness – or more specifically, the anxiety that comes with that.”
What used to be a simple trip down to London can often make him feel quite ill on the run-up.
“Travelling pretty much anywhere can be a worrying feeling. Crowded places. Loud noises. Fear of getting lost. Trust me, I have a few times, especially around and about places like London.” He explained.
“Sometimes when I am surrounded by people and the noise, and loud voices get too much it can be a crippling feeling.”
This is largely why Chris tends to stay in the countryside where it’s peaceful and relaxing.
Advice for those whose life has been impacted by an injury whilst serving in the army
Taking the time to do the things you enjoy, or try something new - this is a huge piece of advice to be taken from Chris’s experience.
Also, to seek support. Whether that be from your direct family and friends, or the army and local NHS services.
This is something Chris did, which he feels truly helped him move forward from his injury.
Knowing that there was help available, and choosing to take this, was what really advanced his road to recovery.
Often leaving the army due to injury can be a lonely place for the individuals affected.
You can feel a real loss of community, as you are no longer surrounded by your comrades and close friends.
“Coming from the army where you knew everyone and everyone wanted to talk to you, to then go back to a local town which was the exact opposite. Wondering around not knowing anyone made it even harder to look for people and for friends.” Chris shared.
Chris decided to spend time finding people with whom he shared common interests, including a fellow landscape photographer in his local area, and another who enjoyed photography and had a military background.
“We did not spend any army time together but we both received help from military charities such as Blesma and Blind Veterans UK."
“So, I suppose it’s a long answer, but the key is to put yourself around good people who understand you have the same sorts of feelings.”
How you can support Blind Veterans UK and associated charities
Donating money to charity is one way to provide support. However, Chris shared other fun ways of supporting this charity; including partaking in sporting events such as the 100k challenge.
With locations including Yorkshire and Brighton, it’s a great opportunity to get involved, if you feel up to the challenge.
Blind Veterans UK also gets privileges into marathons such as London and Brighton, alongside many others across the UK and even the world.
“More locally, there are also community welfare officers that visit members in their area and have community centres where people of the public can volunteer for the day.”
And like many charities “Blind Veterans UK is a 100% non-profitable charity. Meaning they rely totally on donations.”
In conclusion – we would like to take the opportunity to thank Chris for sharing his story with us. The way in which he has taken his experience and channelled this to learn something new is truly inspiring – not to mention that he also teaches this skill to the wider community.
His story is a demonstration of resilience, strength, and genuine care for others. Something we can all take spirit from, especially in the most challenging moments of our lives.