Opening Doors for Blind Veterans
by Brett S. Martin
Shakopee, Minnesota

When Eric Kallal wanted to start his own business, his first point of contact was the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA). He e-mailed the BVA, and someone immediately responded with contacts and referrals for networking and information about government contracting. "It was reassuring to know there was someone who could help if I needed it," Kallal said. "I got a vast amount of information." He now serves as the principal of the company he launched in September 2004, which is a defense contracting firm that provides biotechnology and information technology services to the United States and its allies. While the fledging company is looking to increase its business--government contracts can sometimes take years to procure--Kallal said if nothing else, he can use his experience to help other blinded veterans start businesses.

Meaningful and Productive Lives

Dedicated exclusively to helping make life easier for blind veterans, the BVA specializes in helping people like Kallal achieve their goals. Kallal, a former Navy medic who had performed reconnaissance operations with the Marine Corps, had traveled all over the world.

His life changed in November 2000 when he was conducting a night parachute jump in North Carolina. The jumpers were not expecting winds, but during the freefall, high winds blew Kallal close to a power line. Although he and his parachute never made actual contact with the lines, he apparently caught an arc from a transformer. The electricity burned more than 40 percent of his upper body, caused nerve damage and resulted in a loss of vision in his left eye.

After learning how to stand up and eventually walk again, Kallal was ready to reenlist for active duty. In August 2003, the night before he was to sign the reenlistment papers, he suffered a spontaneous detachment of the retina in his right eye, a delayed result of the parachuting accident. Surgery was unable to restore his vision, leaving him totally blind. "At first, I didn't want to admit it was blindness," he said. "I wanted to believe my eyesight would come back."

After meeting with an outpatient specialist from the Veterans Administration (VA) and receiving basic services, he was put in touch with the BVA. Meeting with other blind veterans and utilizing the wide range of services the BVA offers helped him cope with his blindness. "It has allowed me to see more of how losing your eyesight is not a loss of vision," Kallal said. Thirty-five years old with a wife and two children, he points out that his experience with the BVA has given him an additional incentive to succeed. "I'm not going to shortchange myself or other blinded vets by not giving at least 110 percent," he said.

Tom Miller, executive director of the BVA, said the association's approach of blind veterans helping their peers is particularly effective. "The essence of the BVA is blinded veterans assisting other blinded veterans," he said. "We let them know that despite blindness or vision loss, they can still lead meaningful and productive lives. You learn that there are things you can do and learn to do without vision." That message was not lost on Kallal. "It's kind of reassuring to know how many six figure wage earners are blind," he said.

Breaking Through the Isolation

Visually impaired veterans who contact the BVA quickly learn that they're not alone in their predicament. From its origin in 1945 by a group of blind veterans from World War II until today, the BVA is a community of service men and women who have lost their eyesight. According to Miller, the organization, based in Washington, D.C., currently boasts more than 10,300 members and has 54 affiliates and regional groups across the United States. Lifetime memberships range from $40 to $80, depending on a person's age.

Miller would like to reach blind veterans who don't know about the BVA's programs and services. There are an estimated 150,000 blind veterans nationwide, with approximately 38,000 enrolled in the VA system. The BVA is unique because it's the only organization that focuses on the specialized needs of blind veterans.

While most of the BVA's members are older veterans who are gradually losing their eyesight due to age or disease, there are also a number of younger veterans who were blinded by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Most of these younger veterans have never been in contact with a blind person before. They don't know what it's like to be blind, and they can't think about their futures," Miller said. "The normal reaction is, 'Jeez, my life is over. What am I going to do with the rest of my life?'" he said. "Young guys coming back are devastated and think their lives are over."

BVA members share their experiences with other blind veterans, which builds a sense of community and helps those struggling with their disability to overcome their limitations. They realize they can go back to school, go to work, start a business and resume active lives. "It's very rewarding to lift some of that depression and loneliness and isolation and see them perk up," Miller said. "Blindness can be an isolating disability."

Miller knows firsthand the challenges soldiers face after losing their sight. In December 1967, at 25 years of age, a landmine in Vietnam claimed his eyesight. He went on to attend graduate school and earn a master's degree in social work.

Kallal found inspiration and motivation through the BVA, which he then passed on to the blind veterans he's been in contact with who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. "We've all experienced a similar emotional chain of events," he said.

Advocating for All Blind Vets

In addition to its blind rehabilitation programs, the BVA is active on Capitol Hill. Its members and staff advocate for funding and services for blind veterans, educate elected officials about issues impacting their members, and lobby for favorable legislation. The BVA does not limit its efforts to its membership. "Our Congressional charter charges us to advocate for all blinded veterans," said Neil Appleby, immediate past president of the BVA, who served as president for two years. "Our primary mission is advocacy."

The BVA is currently lobbying to authorize the VA to have a blind veterans program that would include having university trained professionals provide outpatient services. It is also advocating for funding. Like the VA, the BVA is not receiving the federal money it needs to fully serve its veterans, which is why both organizations found it's more effective to work together on the crucial money situation. "Our biggest challenge is funding," Miller said. "Our funds are drying up."

Appleby, a 20-year Navy veteran who became legally blind as a result of a disease, has offered a permanent solution to the money shortage. He supports giving veterans' healthcare a dedicated funding stream, just like social security has, to ensure money will not be a barrier to veterans receiving the care they need. He points out that blind veterans are facing new challenges in areas that have traditionally been their safe havens. The Randolph-Sheppard Act in 1936 recognized that blind people have "vocational potential" and allowed for the licensure of qualified blind people to operate concession stands in federal buildings. This provided blind veterans a means of income. Unfortunately, fast food giants are now setting up operations in the same buildings.

Appleby also cites recently enacted federal privacy regulations that are designed to protect a person's health records, but at the same time prohibit organizations, including the VA, from sharing the names and contact information of blind veterans with the BVA. "It makes it difficult, sometimes impossible, to learn about newly blinded veterans," Appleby said. "We have to go out and find these people ourselves."

BVA Programs and Services

Field service representatives, all of whom are blind veterans, travel throughout the country finding and counseling blind veterans and their families. They encourage their colleagues to take charge of their lives and link them with services, rehabilitation programs and other benefits, such as help entering the workforce.

Regional groups offer blind veterans and their families opportunities for recreation, social activities and support groups. Regional groups also set up and staff volunteer service offices in VA medical centers and clinics, which is typically the first contact blind veterans have with the BVA. Volunteers help fellow blind veterans and family members get the assistance they need to cope with blindness and demonstrate equipment and aids used by people who are blind.

Since the early 1980s, the BVA has offered spouses and dependent children of blind veterans a chance to continue their education through the Kathern F. Gruber Scholarship Program. A bimonthly publication, BVA BULLETIN, allows blinded veterans, their families and other interested parties to keep in touch with each other and stay informed about services, benefits and legislation.

Editor's Note: For more information, contact the Blinded Veterans Association at 800-669-7079 or visit www.bva.org.