The acronym is LDRSHIP and the uppercase letters stand for Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, Personal Courage. These are the values of the United States Army to which Master Sergeant Eric Marts of Moorhead, Minnesota first committed himself when he enlisted in the Army National Guard in 1985.
They are values to which he has remained devoted and true, notwithstanding the adversities he encountered as he fought for the freedom of millions and ended up sacrificing so much.
Born and raised in the small community of Fergus Falls not far from Moorhead, Eric attended the North Dakota State School of Science following high school graduation and while serving in the Guard. He volunteered for Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and was picked up by an Armored Brigade Combat Team that went to the Middle East for less than four months. Eric returned from his service in Deseret Storm free of injury.
More than a decade later he was equally committed, making himself available for deployment with the 34th Infantry Division to Iraq when the U.S. invaded Iraq after 9/11.
On May 11, 2006, Eric and his unit encountered a roadside bomb while on patrol outside Fallujah. He was a considerable distance from the explosion, but the impact was enough to knock him off his feet and onto his back. He got up almost immediately because he didn’t appear to be hurt. He kept working.
“I did what one does naturally in the military,” Eric said of his reaction to the Improvised Explosive Device (IED). “You get up and keep going without complaining, especially when you see others around you losing limbs or with severe burns.”
Within a few days of the explosion Eric began having some trouble seeing clearly out of his right eye. He thought mucus had accumulated, thus causing the blurred vision, but he could not find any. Things were fuzzy. Doctors told him he would likely return to perfect vision as they studied test results that revealed nothing. Back then, the correlation between Traumatic Brain Injury and Optic Nerve damage was not clear.
Fast forward just five months and now eight or nine smaller explosions later, Eric had lost most of his vision in his right eye and was now having problems with his left eye as well. He wore a patch over his right eye so that the blurred vision in the right eye could not interfere with the still relatively decent vision in his left eye.
“There was now talk of me leaving for medical help and that I need to do it, but in my own head I was sure that I was not going to leave my unit,” he said. “I was not going to leave my guys when they were already shorthanded—not happening if I had anything to say about it.”
An Army regulation stating that 50 percent vision is enough to stay on active duty allowed him to convince commanding officers and medical personnel that he could stay. What no one knew at the time that Eric had suffered concussions that had damaged his optic nerve beyond repair, and more so after that first blast.
Only when Eric began experiencing a loss of vision in his left eye and a year after the first explosion did he come to terms with the possibility of leaving to get help.
“The hardest thing through all of it was the realization that I wouldn’t be with my guys anymore and could not go back to them,” he said. “I had to fight the feeling that I had abandoned the people I had trained with, fought with, and defended with my life.”
There were other hard times ahead, not the least of which was learning how to live without sight. Simultaneously, opportunities arose as a local radio talk show host, a spokesperson for veterans on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, a representative of veterans at the 2014 State of the Union Address, and a new home for him and his family donated by Homes For Our Troops. He attributes his resilience to the experience and perspective that comes with age.
“Those cases are very real,” he said. “Feelings of failure, depression, hopelessness, and despair are out there, especially when the maturity might not be there to view things with a long-term perspective.”
Eric’s loyalty, sense of duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage as a resilient blinded veteran are now directed toward his fellow veterans. He wants them to never feel alone or abandoned, neither by their fellow veterans nor by their country. He has felt the ongoing support of his community and his country, and he wants his fellow veterans to always feel the same.
Eric’s membership in the Congressionally chartered Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) has provided him with a forum and a vehicle for inspiring his fellow veterans as he has engaged with them in adaptive sports activities, as he has represented the organization in a panel discussion Traumatic Brain Injury at the national conference of the Association of Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, and by his commitment to bring light to their lives through periods of darkness.
Please support Eric in his commitment to veterans with vision loss by your commitment to the same group with a donation in his honor. Our nation’s blinded veterans depend on this commitment to generosity and support to bringing greater independence to their lives.