Blinded Veterans Association holds convention in Spokane
On Jan. 6, 1968, Army engineer Dale Stamper was preparing to construct a bridge near the village of Tan An in South Vietnam. He stepped on a land mine, and everything went dark.
“I lost my sight as a result of that,” Stamper said at the Red Lion Hotel at the Park this week. “It was total.”
Stamper, a member of the Spokane Inland Empire branch of the Blinded Veterans Association, helped plan and organize the group’s annual convention held in downtown Spokane this week. The 68-year-old organization was formed by World War II fighters gathered at a military hospital in Avon, Conn., in 1945, and now hundreds of veterans and their family members attend the yearly gathering. Stamper said the group was formed to address the specific needs for vision-impaired veterans not handled by other organizations, including the establishment of blind rehabilitation centers nationwide.
“It is because of our advocacy, because of our diligence in working with Congress and working with the (Department of Veterans Affairs), that the rehab centers are established,” Stamper said. Thirteen such VA centers now exist nationwide, the nearest to Spokane being the American Lake Blind Rehabilitation Center founded in 1971 in Tacoma.
The weeklong convention kicked off Tuesday with addresses from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki. Researchers studying traumatic brain injuries that cause vision impairment were also on hand to offer insight into their work and new technologies for treatment and rehabilitation.
Thomas Zampieri, director of government relations for the group, said his job is made more difficult by the stigma associated with blindness. “Vision loss scares people, so people don’t feel comfortable coming up to somebody, especially young people, with traumatic brain injuries,” Zampieri said.
Mark Threadgold is one such veteran whose blindness was caused by brain injury. Threadgold visited the Spokane convention with a contingent of British blinded veterans, dubbed Project Gemini after the decommissioned communications cable that once linked the United States and the United Kingdom.
Threadgold was blinded in 1999 after an injury to his head severed his optic nerves. A scar is still visible running from his left ear to the crown of his head beneath a closely cropped haircut. “The details I don’t bring up to people,” Threadgold said. “It’s in the past, and it was in a bad time of my life.”
But since then, Threadgold has become an accomplished and record-holding sailor.
Threadgold wasn’t the only attendee who has moved on from vision impairment to achieve remarkable physical feats. Steve Baskis is one of the estimated 5,000 U.S. service members who have lost their sight since operations in the Middle East began in 2001, according to Zampieri. But since the attack on Baskis’ mounted patrol vehicle in Iraq in May 2008 that blinded him and killed a friend sitting beside him, Baskis has scaled peaks around the globe, including the Caucasus Mountains in Eastern Europe and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
“I enjoy being outside, I grew up camping and stuff with my family,” said Baskis, who was born in Illinois. “I wasn’t going to let my blindness keep me from doing that.”