Veterans and Vision Loss: Finding Support in Wisconsin

A man, wearing a military uniform, stands with his back to the camera, saluting a United States flag.

Support is available for Wisconsin veterans with vision loss.

Donald Jackson is a veteran with vision loss. The 63-year-old Madison man answers his phone with a hearty greeting. But when asked about his military service and his health care options since that time, he speaks in a quiet tone.

“I have glaucoma, which has taken all of my vision in one eye and a large part in my other eye,” Jackson says.

“I was a member of the Army in the 1970s but didn’t realize I could qualify now for any sort of vision care.”

Jackson is one of more than 360,000 veterans who currently call Wisconsin home. A little more than half of them are 65 and older.

Those numbers are from a new survey by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which found close to 19 million veterans living across the nation. Thirty-seven percent are 70 and older, while 36 percent of U.S. veterans are between 50 and 69. Just over a quarter are under the age of 50.

Health care is one of the biggest and most important benefits for veterans. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the nation’s largest integrated health care system, estimates that more than one million veterans are visually impaired. About 80 percent of those individuals have glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy.

A History of Vision Loss and Veterans

Some of the first people who were blind or visually impaired and learned to use a guide dog or white cane for increased mobility were veterans.

The International Guide Dog Federation indicates guide dogs were originally trained in Germany to be company for injured soldiers during the First World War. These veterans often had vision loss after being hit by poisonous gas while on the front lines. The dogs moved from companionship roles to reliable guides.

The white cane became a mobility tool for veterans of World War II. The American Council of the Blind notes Doctor Richard Hoover developed the long white cane to both identify veterans with low vision and to support their orientation and mobility.

Connecting Veterans with Today’s Vision Services

For veterans like Donald Jackson, eye care can be available through the VA based on eligibility factors that include time served, disability rating, honorable discharge from the service and income. The VA Eye Clinics provide vision assessments, treatments and glasses as needed.

“I contacted the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired to ask about services, and that’s when I learned I may be able to get free care through the VA Eye Clinic,” Jackson says.

“I applied and was accepted. It’s a huge relief because I’m on a very tight fixed income.”

Jackson says his VA clinic visit included meetings with a low vision optometrist for an extensive evaluation. Adaptive products can be prescribed with a low vision therapist providing training to use the devices. And it is provided to eligible veterans at no cost.

“There are so many benefits and programs available to veterans with low vision,” Kelli Weichelt says.

Weichelt is an outpatient social work program coordinator and visual impairment services team (VIST) coordinator at William S. Middleton Memorial VA Hospital in Madison. Weichelt says if a veteran is dealing with low vision, but found to be legally blind, a VIST will assist with applications for service, provide education and help coordinate their care. She suggests all veterans learn what they may be eligible to receive for their time in the service.

“We want to help educate those who have served so we can support their ability to live independently,” Weichelt says.

“They have taken care of us. Now we can take care of them, and they deserve it.”

Increasing a Veteran’s Quality of Life

There are other options to support veterans who have low vision. The Council can fill in service gaps and connect a veteran to additional benefits.

“We are available to provide services for veterans who are enrolled in VA healthcare, as well as those who are not enrolled,” Council Education and Vision Services Director Amy Wurf says.

“We want all veterans to be aware of the availability of VA services and can assist in making connections if the veteran is interested. Council staff can provide follow up training and home visits as needed.”

The Visually Impaired Veteran Activities, Inc. (VIVA) group organizes social activities for veterans who are visually impaired. VIVA Vice President John Carter says everything from museum visits to picnics and motorcycle rides are scheduled for veterans who want to take part.

“As they age, people who are blind, veterans in particular, tend to become more sedentary,” Carter says.

“They deserve our attention and respect. Our activities are meant to get them out of the house every single month.”

And as Donald Jackson knows, it is worth taking time to learn about activities and health care as it relates to veterans with vision impairments. He continues to get support from the VA and the Council.

“I’ve been able to take courses related to everyday living—mobility, cooking, computer and more,” Jackson says. “I really didn’t think I could qualify for any support. But it’s all made such a difference in my life.”

Learn more:

Contact the Admissions Office at your local VA or speak with a County Veteran Service Officer (VSO). The VSO assists with identifying benefits, writing and submitting benefit claims to the VA, as well as providing advocacy. Their services are free of charge. Learn more by contacting the County Veterans Service Officers of Wisconsin at 1-844-947-2876 or find more on the CVSO website.

The Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) is a national source of information and assistance for veterans with vision loss. It focuses on the issues and advocacy for all veterans and their families. Learn more on the BVA website.

Additional resources:

The Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255

Find information about VA health benefits and frequently asked questions on the website.

Learn more about the VA Hospitals and services in Wisconsin

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