by Thomas L. Hicks

On a warm Arizona afternoon in May 2005, I was walking through a shopping mall looking for my oldest daughter Megan's place of employment. She worked at a small carry-out Pizza Hut in Mesa, Ariz., and I was going to drop in just to say hello. I had never walked there by myself, so I was not exactly familiar with my surroundings. This is not an unusual thing for a father to do, but I am not the usual father, and this day started a chain of events that changed my life forever.

I am not the usual father because I am blind, having lost my functional eyesight while serving on active duty in the U.S. Army after 13 years of service to my country. My military career came to a sudden halt when I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. I will never forget that day in February 1997 when the Army ophthalmologist said, "Captain Hicks, you are legally blind." I cannot begin to describe how this revelation impacted me, but I was filled with uncertainty and fear. I thought to myself, "How am I going to financially support my wife and four children?" All I knew was how to be a soldier, or so I thought. What does a blind man do to support his family, anyway?

The transition from military to civilian life was difficult for my family and me, and my transition from sight to blindness made it even more difficult. I really struggled with the adjustment, and I fell into a deep depression that was not obvious. I stayed very active. I exercised constantly and enrolled in graduate school. But I turned inward and became self-centered.

My self-esteem hit rock bottom, and no encouragement, no support group, and no blind rehabilitation program could help. I was laughing on the outside and crying on the inside. Outwardly I appeared to be adjusting to my new life, but inside I was slowly dying as I lost more and more eyesight. I began to destroy loving relationships as I pushed my family and people close to me away. All my confidence and Army discipline seemed to disappear with my eyesight. They were replaced with anger, bitterness, and jealousy. Behind closed doors I became very emotional and cried a river of tears. All I could think about was how I missed seeing my wife's face and my children's faces. I begged God to stop this nightmare and vowed to be a good man if he would just restore my sight. The strong man my wife knew and was attracted to was gone, and the father my children were proud of was gone. Blindness seemed to take my whole sense of manhood and independence, or so I thought.

I earned my master's degree in organizational leadership in 1999, and moved my family from Tacoma, Wash. to Gilbert, Ariz. I secured a position in a small family retail chain of wireless stores as a human resources manager. I held this position for four years. Meanwhile, my marriage continued its downward spin. My wife and children avoided me. I was miserable to be around. We all missed the happy days when I could see. My wife and children would watch old family movies and instead of bringing back happy memories, they would be sad watching me interact with them when I could see. It was very difficult for us not to think that the best days of our lives were behind us. I failed to understand how my family was affected by my loss of sight. After all, it was me that was blind, right?

In October of 2003, I resigned my position as HR manager and decided to face blindness head-on. I did not want to let blindness be an excuse for me anymore. I attended guide dog school, which greatly improved my independence. Now, I could walk anywhere independently. I secured a job with Arizona Industries for the Blind working on special projects for the management team.

I became the president of the Northern Arizona Regional Group of the Blinded Veterans Association. I volunteered to serve on the Arizona Governor's Council on Blindness and Visual Impairments. I joined the Arizona Council of the Blind and Guide Dog Users of Arizona. I enrolled in Western Michigan University's blind rehabilitation teaching graduate program. I began to learn braille. I decided that I wanted to learn all I could about blindness and I wanted to help other people who are blind increase their personal independence, security, opportunity, and improve quality of life.

I now know that disability is part of the human experience. No disability makes one less human or less valuable. I have become an advocate and spokesperson for people who are blind. Still, even though I was making positive strides in dealing with my blindness, I remained profoundly depressed, and my marriage and personal life suffered.

In June 2005, my 19-year relationship and almost 18-year marriage ended in divorce. By this time my family had grown to four boys and two girls. My worst fears were realized as I signed the divorce decree. I was filled with overwhelming shame and guilt; I felt solely responsible for the divorce. Many times I thought of ending my life. I feared growing old blind and alone. I sought the help of professional therapists to help me deal with my adjustment to blindness and divorce and I continued my work, volunteering, and education.

I met a woman who made me feel like a man again and for the first time in years I felt attractive. For her my blindness was a non-issue. It did not make her sad, nor did she pity me. Her mother, who is blind, raised her. She showed me love and encouraged me and helped me learn how to manage my personal life. She demonstrated incredible patience and strength as I did my best to push her away too. I felt unlovable and unworthy of meaningful relationships. She has taught me how to forgive others and myself. I have learned how to love others and today my relationships with my children are solid. My relationship with my ex-wife has greatly improved and we are able to focus our attention and love on our children. Still, something in my life was missing.

Back to that day in May 2005 that set off a chain of events that changed my life forever. While looking for the Pizza Hut where Megan worked, I accidentally entered Lim's Hawaii Kenpo Karate School. A man named Mehdi asked me if he could help me and I said I was looking for Pizza Hut. I asked where I was and he said that I was in a karate school. I asked if they ever taught karate to blind guys. He said yes, that he had heard of a guy that was blind training somewhere in Colorado. I got Mehdi's phone number and, after thinking about it for a while, called to inquire about lessons.

After a brief phone interview with a gracious woman named Patrice Lim, I was invited to come work out and see if karate interested me. I was nervous and excited and did not know what to expect. I met the chief instructor, Professor George Lim, who is an eighth-degree black belt. He has been training for over 32 years. After an interview, he agreed to let me train. I went home that night with bruises on my arms from performing endless inward blocks. Mehdi became my primary instructor and good friend. He and the rest of the instructors tested me to see how motivated I was. I needed to prove myself to my instructors and earn their respect.

I trained three or four times per week for two hours a night and soon I was integrated into the regular class. Together we began a new journey and together we learned from each other. I worked hard to learn the basics, forms, and self-defense drills. Together we sweated and suffered as I progressed in my karate knowledge. My self-esteem and confidence began to return, and my instructors began to challenge me more. I was treated like all the other students.

Professor George said I did not join a karate school but a family. I soon felt respected, loved, and accepted. My instructor and I set a goal to compete in a nationally ranked karate tournament held in Primm, Nev. Once I received my professor's permission, we began the challenging regimen. I attended a power-breaking seminar and learned how to break bricks with my palm, elbow, forearm, and fist. I decided I wanted to compete in the breaking and forms divisions. In seven months I was promoted twice and I skipped a belt because of my motivation and demonstrated knowledge. Presently, I am a purple belt.

On Nov. 30, 2005, I injured my right hand during a practice breaking presentation in front of my instructors. I was performing a right hammer fist break on a stack of five bricks when my improper technique resulted in an injury. A later X-ray indicated no fracture so I kept rubbing it and icing it. I did not want to let this injury keep me from competing.

On Dec. 3, 2005, I registered to compete in the 28th Annual Dai Shihan Ted Tabura's Karate Tournament. I signed up to compete in forms and breaking. Word soon got around that I was blind, and many people took an interest in watching me. I mentally prepared myself to break three stacks of six bricks. Each brick was two inches thick, six inches wide, and 24 inches long. My instructors and I decided to perform a palm, elbow, and forearm break. When it was my turn, I presented myself to the judges and asked for permission to begin. My blood surged with adrenalin and I began to tremble with enhanced strength and power. Now all I had to do was focus my energy and power on the middle of the bricks. I smashed through all three stacks like a runaway freight train. I took first place in both divisions, and for the first time in years I was filled with an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment. My instructors had prepared me well.

Later I learned that Professor George was confident I would win. He was so confident that he sent me an e-mail message the day before my competition congratulating me on my success. My family and instructors were proud of me, and I think I inspired many observers. It was all very exciting and I felt like a hero. My girlfriend and my youngest daughter Ruth were the first to hug and kiss me when I stepped away from the judges. Our eyes filled with tears of joy and pride. The journey to that point had been long and hard. I did, however, manage to break my fifth metacarpal in my right hand in the process, but it was all worth it! I would do it all again! It was very life-changing; I felt like a warrior once again.

My karate instructors are also my life coaches. In karate you learn to push yourself beyond your limitations and you quickly learn that your only competition is yourself. I have learned valuable lessons about life in karate. Practitioners never quit or give up. They train and love karate like someone is going to take it away from them and they love their families the same way. My professor is always stressing the importance of balance in one's life. Karate is not easy; I have learned how to work through pain and injuries while striving toward my goals.

In many ways I can relate these lessons to learning how to live with blindness. Being blind is very challenging, but it is doable. I choose to live life to its fullest, loving others along the way. I now believe that walking into Lim's Hawaii Kenpo Karate was no accident, and that everything happens for a reason. These lessons have been tough to learn, but I am a better man for it and I am very grateful for the experience. I love my life and I am confident my experiences will benefit others now and in the future.

Professor George teaches the Hawaii Kenpo Karate System like the ancient warriors before him and he models the way for each student. He expects better than our best every day in all we do. I have learned that it is both an honor and privilege to learn the secrets of Hawaii Kenpo Karate and I am proud to be a Lim Kenpo Warrior. The future is brighter and I am striving to earn my black belt from Professor George Lim!

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