A 72-year mission helping blinded veterans do the ‘impossible’

blind veterans

BVA President Dale Stamper, Joe Parker, Al Avina, Richard, & Joaquin prepare to present BVA’s wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (Photo courtesy Blinded Veterans Association)

By Meg Schweitzer

WASHINGTON — Upon returning from war in 1945, a group of World War II veterans realized help was needed for those who lost their sight in combat.

Enter the Blinded Veterans Association.

“The main thing is they wanted to help each other,” Stuart Nelson, the manager of communications for Blinded Veterans Association, told CBS Radio’s Connecting Vets. “They wanted to preserve and strengthen the spirit of fellowship among them.”

Fast forward 72 years, and the mission remains the same: Promote the welfare of blinded veterans to ensure they take their rightful place in the community.

Through various programs, BVA focuses on helping blind veterans realize just how much they can do.

ranger camp blind veterans

A group of blinded veterans led by BVA’s National Sergeant-at-Arms Danny Wallace participate in Ranger Training Camp. (Photo courtesy Blinded Veterans Association)

One of those programs is “Operation Peer Support” — created in early 2006 to assist veterans injured in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. These veterans were then paired up with other blind veterans in the program, with the hopes of helping them interact with veterans who had already felt that isolation.

“Being veterans, they come from a background where they’ve had to be tested before,” Nelson says. “They’ve gone through basic training in their lives at one time and a lot of them are really tough people. I think that actually makes a difference.”

They also offer sports programs for blind veterans, including blind hockey, golf, skiing, bowling and goalball.

“With limited assistance, they can do so many of the things that we as sighted people don’t think that would be possible,” Nelson says.

BVA is also involved in White Cane Awareness Day on October 15. A majority of its 51 regional groups will set up exhibits at malls, shopping centers and VA hospitals to inform people what it’s like to be blind.

blind veterans

BVA’s Richmond Regional Chapter on White Cane Awareness Day 2016. (Photo courtesy Blinded Veterans Association)

“Losing your vision is like dying. You have to actually mourn for the loss of vision… and be born again and discover a new type of life,” Nelson says.

But Nelson says perhaps the most important resource is its Field Service Program. Their main goal is to make sure blind veterans receive the benefits they’ve earned, and counsel them on how to obtain those benefits. They also assist with the transition to veteran status, finding jobs and more.

Being a Congressionally Chartered Nonprofit Organization allows “their small organization to have a strong voice,” Nelson says.

veterans congress

Several veterans service organizations testify in Congress along with BVA. (Photo courtesy Blinded Veterans Association)

In recent years, BVA worked on establishing blind rehabilitation centers and ensuring that blind veterans were able to attend those centers with transportation included. Up until last year, blind veterans without a service-connected disability could not participate in those benefits.

“[Being able] to testify before the US Congress every year and speak as kind of the official voice for blinded veterans… that’s a really big benefit,” Nelson says.

Connect: @megschweitzer | meg.schweitzer@cbsradio.com

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