by Gale Watson

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” William Shakespeare in Henry V

Recently, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) staff in Washington, D.C. celebrated White Cane Safety Day at VA Headquarters after the actual date so that some of the field staff could celebrate with us and demonstrate activities such as learning how to use the cane while blindfolded, wearing vision distorters to simulate age-related visual impairment, using access technology, and learning how to be a human guide for someone who is blind.

Our speakers included leaders from the VA Secretary’s office, who know our programs well having recounted to Congress the ways that VA cares for blinded and wounded Servicemembers. Executives from the Blinded Veterans Association attended and related stories of adjusting to their own blindness as Veterans from the Vietnam era. Attendees viewed films about adjustment and reintegration of USA and UK Veterans and Service members from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Attendees were reminded that people with visual impairment have always played important roles in our lives and culture. The achievements of Helen Keller, Andrea Bocelli, Claude Monet, Harriet Tubman, John Milton, James Thurber, Marla Runyon, Erik Weihenmayer and James Joyce (to name just a few) have made our personal and communal experiences richer. We celebrated the accomplishments of all people who are blind, and recommitted to VA goals of providing person-centered care, creating value through innovation, and providing equal access to services and opportunities for Veterans.

This event was a big hit. Sighted VA staff who had attended called me later to relate how deeply touched they were; that they pondered the stories they heard and their learning experiences, and related them to family and friends. Several attendees pulled me aside to discuss family members losing vision to age-related vision diseases or stroke. I met VA staffers who are blind that I didn’t know; they were excited to have a day in which people could come together to talk and learn about blindness.

Now, coming on the heels of White Cane Day, is Veterans Day. A second opportunity for us in VA, and in the field of blind rehabilitation and education, to re-dedicate ourselves to remembering the important purpose of Veterans Day: a celebration to honor America’s Veterans for their patriotism, love of country, service and sacrifice – for the good of all.

I came late to my career in VA – starting as a researcher in 1988 (nearly 20 years after my first job in the blindness field), then a clinician, and now an administrator. Those who practice blind and vision rehabilitation in VA can attest to this: Veterans are tough, enduring and resilient. We all have illustrative stories. Mine include an elderly visually impaired Veteran undergoing chemotherapy. He kept all his appointments in the low vision clinic anyway because reading the newspaper was too important to delay getting a closed circuit television system (also known as a video magnifier). We sometimes had to stop the session for him to be quietly sick, and have the clinic’s physician assistant check him, then we would proceed. Veterans are very good at carrying on.

I especially enjoy certain aspects of my job; Operation Peer Support (OPS) is one of them. OPS is an outreach project of the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) that connects combat-blinded veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam with newly blinded Veterans who have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. The BVA holds events and meetings for the OPS gang every year at their convention. Most of the participants are young; they have lost their vision, and more, to improvised explosive devices or sniper fire. They may have burns, amputation, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. They may also have tattoos, piercings, the VERY latest technology, a girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse, and a ready laugh. It has been my pleasure to hear about their life changes, and how they continue to “see the hill – take the hill” in civilian life, too.

Some are there with parents – parents who didn’t know that their son or daughter was going to need them as caregivers, because their multiple injuries have caused enduring disability so severe that lifetime care is going to be required. I have seen the same moms at this event for years. They ask hard, piercing questions; they don’t cry. Veterans’ moms are very good at carrying on, too.

We often hear that blindness is the most feared health challenge. A 2010 “Eye on Eyesight” survey conducted by Surge Research Inc., on behalf of Choice Magazine Listening, confirms this. More than sixty percent of normally sighted Americans ages 50-64 say they are more frightened by nearly double the fearfulness caused by heart disease (63% vs. 37%). Heart disease is the number one cause of death among that cohort. Well, I think most Veterans feel the same way as did Winston Churchill who said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

I can’t talk about Veterans Day without a remembrance of my favorite Veteran, my daddy. He came home from World War II without a scratch – his wounds were inside; he never slept. He served in the South Pacific. I researched and found that his combat experience was especially brutal. He never talked of it, even to my mother, and we were forbidden to ask. Things that “go bump in the night” never frightened me, because daddy was awake and around at all hours.

I realize as an adult, because I lost him early, that his peace came from cuddling and playing with us, planning some family event – fishing and swimming in the river, barbecues and hotdog roasts, a trip to the movies, a drive in his old truck, churning ice cream, a visit to relatives where we romped with our cousins under his fond gaze. Until death he saluted the flag, held his hand over his heart during the Star Spangled Banner at ballgames, and told us we were lucky, lucky kids to have been born in such a great country.

And we are lucky. On November 11th, we celebrate the warriors who create the peace. Who guarded and protected us while we worked, ate, played, prayed, slept. Those who gave their lives and those whose lives are forever changed by the wounds they bear. Don’t take for granted the men and women who most deserve our thanks. Let us vow to re-dedicate ourselves, remembering the important purpose of Veterans Day – and vow to provide the very best service for Those who have served us well.

Editor’s Note: This article does not represent the opinions of the Department of Veterans Affairs, nor the Veterans Health Administration.

More about Veterans on VisionAware

The mission of the Veterans Administration Blind Rehabilitation Service is to coordinate a healthcare service delivery system that provides a continuum of care for blinded veterans extending from their home environment to the local VA facility and to the appropriate rehabilitation setting.