EXCHANGE: Freeport teen soldiers on after losing vision

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FREEPORT, Ill. (AP) — Jesse Marshall's bedroom says a lot about him.

His Legos are organized by size in a three-drawer cabinet. An Army poster, a stoic recruit saluting onlookers, hangs a little crooked and is beginning to peel off the wall. Jesse's television screen is covered in penny-size nose prints, a consequence of him sitting close to the television.

Jesse and his mother, Cathie Kentner, sit on top of his twin bed laughing about the nose prints when it begins to snow.

"Look, Jess," Cathie said as she gestures toward the window. "It's finally snowing."

"Look? Mom, I can't. I'm legally blind, remember?"

But it's easy for Cathie to forget that her 15-year-old son is visually impaired because things haven't always been this way. He's only been navigating the world without much vision for about ten months, ever since Feb. 11.

'Everything was just black'

There was a blizzard outside when the gun went off. Jesse was in a deep sleep. Two minutes passed before he even realized he was bleeding.

"I felt something wet all over my body," Jesse said. "I didn't know what was going on because I couldn't see. Everything was just black."

His father had been moving a shotgun — a family heirloom passed down for more than three generations — from a closet when it discharged, according to Jesse and Cathie. Shotgun pellets passed through two walls and a computer chair before entering Jesse's body.

"I took one through each eyeball," Jesse said. "I still have the pellets in my right foot, left knee, left thigh, left hand, left wrist," Jesse said.

He managed to spit one up out of his lip in the hospital; a plastic surgeon removed another from his gums.

Jesse had been indifferent to firearms; he was aware of the shotgun involved in his injury but he had never touched it. He was never a hunter, and he didn't shoot for sport. When it comes to video games, he'd rather build Navy-style ships on "Minecraft" than shoot bad guys on "Call of Duty."

Jesse's father drove him to SwedishAmerican Hospital from his Rockford residence. From Swedes, Jesse was transported to University of Wisconsin Hospital & Clinics in Madison; due to the severe weather, however, he was taken by ambulance, not the desired helicopter.

He spent a week at the hospital, dazed. When he was released, the only vision he had was about the size of a pinhole in his right eye. Nothing out of the left.

After the accident, Jesse moved from his father's home to Freeport to live with his mother and her husband, Steve. Within eight weeks, he was trucking through his second semester of eighth grade with the help of paraprofessionals and students at Freeport Middle School.

"The doctors told us that the most healing would take place in the first year, so we started doing what we could," Cathie said. "We really just didn't want to hold him back (in school). The accident was hard."

Struggling back up

Although Jesse wasn't keen on changing schools and homes in the middle of his teenage years, he seems to have lucked out with Freeport High School's vision program and its resources.

Teacher Brian Wheelock — who, like Jesse, is legally blind in his left eye — is leading the program in its first year. He has eight other students and works exclusively with Jesse during eighth period.

"When I first heard about Jesse back in April, we were under the impression he was going to be a Braille reader, but he's improved a lot," Wheelock said. "His primary learning medium is his audition (hearing) followed by the vision he does have."

Since working with Wheelock, along with several doctors at different eye clinics, Jesse has reclaimed some of his top and right fields of vision in his right eye. He still lacks his lower field. He can read with the help of a device that magnifies each letter until it takes up the whole screen. But then he has to read each word, one letter at a time. And then remember each word so he can string together one sentence at a time.

The process frustrates him.

"I haven't given up, but I've come really close," he said. "I feel upset, angry, frustrated ... all of the above, really. Some days I just can't do it."

But it's not just the schoolwork that upsets him. He has a hard time remembering what several things look like; his memory fails him occasionally.

"It's almost like my brain is a big file cabinet and everything just doesn't fit in it anymore," he said. "I'm 15 but I feel like I'm starting over, back in preschool. Every day I'm just trying to come back up."

Wheelock is willing to be patient with the healing process.

"We live in a visual world, so when your vision is taken from you, frustration is a natural response," Wheelock said. "This whole thing happened when Jesse was 14, which is already a tough age. Then he was on the verge of getting his driver's license and — boom — it was gone."

"Literally, boom," Jesse said, before bursting into laughter.

A dream deferred

Like everybody else, Jesse takes classes such as math, a foreign language (German, not his favorite) and English. Given his disability, classes driven by written materials are difficult.

His Navy Junior Officers Training Corps course — commonly called "NJ" at Freeport High School — provides an escape from those expectations. The class has mostly physical demands, such as pushups, situps and rifle spinning; the class also calls specifically for auditory tasks, including memorizing and verbalizing the chain of command.

The program aims to recruit and discipline; about 10 to 15 percent of each JROTC class eventually goes on to serve in a branch of the U.S. military.

Jesse's vision prevents him from doing some activities, but he still performs basic work with rifles during drill team practice. He can formally present the gun, place it on his left shoulder and place it on his right.

"He's got to work a little harder than the other kids, but once he figures out (the moves they will) just become muscle memory," said Lt. Cmdr. Barry E. Boettcher, the high school's senior naval science instructor. "He enjoys just being out there ... if someone's willing to try NJROTC, then we're happy to have them."

His primary role is on the extracurricular physical team, one of several groups that comprise Freeport's NJRTOC chapter. He competes against students from other schools by racing to do pushups and situps. Both exercises are something that can be done with eyes closed.

At age 15, Jesse doesn't know exactly where he wants to be when he graduates, but he wants to be involved with the military in some way. The glimmer of hope he has manifests itself physically. According to his paraprofessional LuAnn Bentima, Jesse "lives in his uniform," even though it's only mandatory that NJ students wear it on Wednesdays.

"I told him to wait (and) see what happens and as his vision improves we can make that call," Cathie said. "Maybe he could even get a desk job with a branch of the military. I mean, there are people with one eye who even get to drive.

"You could have that kind of healing, Jess. It might just take a few years."


Source: Rockford Register Star,


Information from: Rockford Register Star,

This is an Illinois Exchange story shared by the Rockford Register Star.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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