Imagine you are in a combat zone and you find yourself disorientated and blind after being injured. Imagine you are in the middle of your career and an eye exam concludes with a diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa, which results in blindness. Imagine you approach retirement but age related macular degeneration or your exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam caused diabetes retinopathy altering your plans. These are just some of the ways Veterans find themselves developing a visual impairment, but rest assured there is hope. We, the Heartland Regional Group of the Blinded Veterans Association, our here to assist our fellow Veterans.
The Department of Veterans Affairs projections estimates 147,887 severely visually impaired Veterans in FY2015, which declines to 140,436 by FY2020. This reduction largely stems from the passing of our greatest generations of Veterans from WWII through the Korean war, and advances in medical procedures staving off legal blindness. While declining numbers might depict positive change, the VA’s Blind Rehabilitation Services (BRS) serves only 47,310 of these Veterans, due to lack of awareness of these benefits and entitlements. This article will describe how visual impairments impacts each generation of our nation’s Veterans, so you may assist in informing others about blindness related services for Veterans.
World War II and Korean War Veterans
Our WWII and Korean War Veterans face a combination of service and age related visual impairments. Conditions like macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetes retinopathy, stroke related visual impairments, and retinal detachments are the prevailing conditions diminishing independence. Only 14,474 members of the Greatest Generation attended VA VRS services.
Vietnam Era Veterans
The VA recognizes numerous conditions associated with Agent Orange and other herbicides ranging from cancers to type II Diabetes. This allows Veterans to receive a VA service connected disability rating for conditions which arose later in life. Most notably are those secondary impacts from Diabetes. Alternatively, many of our Vietnam Era Veterans continue to reach the age when various age related conditions arise like glaucoma. VA statistics ranks Vietnam Veterans as the largest wartime era facing blindness with 39,869 cases.
Persian Gulf War Era Veterans
The swiftness of combat operations in Iraq leaves many to forget we sustained casualties, and overshadows the numerous other smaller deployments conducted throughout Central and South America, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Africa between the end of the Cold War and start of the Post 9/11 Era. Each of these left their marks through direct enemy engagements to exposure to toxins from burn pits to oil fields. VA BRS records identified 15,258 of these Veterans possess a severe visual impairments, with 3,586 residing outside the VA’s continuum of care. Visual impairments results from retinitis pigmentosa, service related injuries, and environmental exposures.
Operations Enduring Freedom,Iraqi Freedom, and New Dawn
From the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the National Alliance on Eye and Vision Research reports that over 197,555 combat injuries impacted the optical system. Amongst those with a Traumatic Brain Injury, over 36,000 have presented in poly-trauma clinics with short to long term functional visual impairments. All of these differing conditions are directly related to penetrating or concussive/blast injuries from Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), shrapnel, gunshot wounds, and environmental incidents. There are still many more unreported cases of these recent Veterans with functional sight impairments that range from issues with glare, headaches, blind spots, reading difficulties, and numerous other conditions.
Department of Veterans Affairs Services
One should not give up hope, as the VA offers an array of Blind Rehabilitation Services that can occur anywhere from home based interventions to extended training within the Blind Rehab Centers. TO learn more about these programs ask your primary care team or eye doctors who your VAMC’s Visual Impairment Services Team coordinator is.
Heartland Regional Group
We form an integral part in assisting blinded Veterans through peer support services, raising awareness about BRS programs, and aiding individuals file disability claims for blindness. Our monthly teleconferences, participation at VA support groups, and presence throughout Kansas and Missouri ensures Veterans will have a chance to talk with others who shared their experiences. We understand the struggles adapting to blindness, so we encourage Veterans to attend day to extended inpatient VA blind rehab programs to regain their independence. Finally, many causes of blindness may be linked to military service, so we inform Veterans about their rights and how to pursue service connected disability ratings.