Fellow Vets Teach, Inspire Vision-impaired Navy Officer
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., April 3, 2013 Navy Cmdr. (Dr.) Martin Hickey’s view of the world has slowly been shrinking as a progressive eye disease chips away at his peripheral and night vision.
Dave Brown, left, a Vietnam veteran who leads a low-vision support group in Northern California, chats with Navy Cmdr. (Dr.) Martin Hickey about living with visual impairments during the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic at Snowmass Village, Colo., April 2, 2013. Hickey, one of only two active-duty members among the almost 400 participants, called the camaraderie he’s found among veterans the highlight of the clinic. DOD photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
A dentist who continues to treat patients at the Naval Medical Center San Diego using a special telescopic loupe, he plans to finish out a 28-year Navy career later this year.
Most service members in Hickey’s shoes would just now be thinking about their transition from the military and into the Veterans Affairs Department’s health care network.
But Hickey already has taken that step. He gets specialized care at VA’s state-of-the-art blind rehabilitation facility in Long Beach, Calif., and is participating this week in his first National Disabled Winter Sports Clinic here.
When Hickey received his diagnosis, doctors at the Naval Medical Center San Diego turned to VA, which runs the most advanced blind rehabilitation facility in the region. The center, dedicated in January 2010, honors Army Maj. (Dr.) Charles “Rob” Soltes Jr., the first Army optometry officer to be killed in action while on active duty. Soltes, a 36-year-old Army reservist from Irvine, Calif., was killed Oct. 13, 2004, when an explosive device struck his convoy in Mosul, Iraq.
Hickey raved about the care he received during five weeks of intensive treatment at the facility. An enthusiastic and energetic staff set up a customized treatment and education program for him, he said, providing tools and resources to help him live more easily with his declining vision.
“All this time, I had been improvising, trying to work around my vision issues,” Hickey said. “The VA had the experience and resources to help me in ways I never imagined possible.”
One of the staffers at the VA facility recommended that Hickey consider attending the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. The annual clinic, co-sponsored by VA and Disabled American Veterans, is open to U.S. military veterans with disabilities ranging from spinal cord injuries and orthopedic amputations to visual impairment and neurological conditions who receive care at VA facilities.
During the six-day program, veterans learn adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing and are introduced to other adaptive activities and sports to help them realize abilities many thought they had lost.
Once a snowboarder, Hickey had given it up years ago. He was fearful, he said, that with his failing vision, he’d run into another skier or hurt a child. So he decided to sign up for the winter sports clinic, one of just two active-duty members attending it this week alongside almost 400 disabled veterans.
After a morning snowboarding down Snowmass Mountain with an instructor specially trained to work with low-vision skiers, Hickey was thrilled to once again be able to schuss down the mountain.
“It was a gas,” he said. “It’s as much fun as you can have. It’s an adventure, and it’s exciting.”
But for Hickey, getting to push through his limitations is just part of the benefits he’s receiving at the clinic.
“For me, the biggest benefit is not on the slopes,” he said. “It’s getting to network with people with similar issues, and learning how they are dealing with it and what’s available to help them.”
Hickey said he’s been like a sponge, learning everything he can from about 60 visually impaired participants at the clinic. They’ve shared their own experiences and told him about everything from sources for the best-trained guide dogs to resources provided through Disabled American Veterans.
“I feel like I have so much in common with these veterans,” he said. “They understand everything I’m dealing with, and have great suggestions to pass along.”
Among the veterans Hickey has met is former Air Force Staff Sgt. Dave Brown, a Vietnam veteran who runs a low-vision support group in Northern California and said he takes pride in helping others learn to live with impaired vision.
“At first, it’s really hard to do things independently. But for anything that comes up, some of us have already experienced it,” Brown said. “Somebody here has already been through it and done it, and we are here to pass that along to our fellow veterans.”
Liz Greco, a recreational therapist at the Long Beach center, said the experiences Hickey is gaining alongside his visually impaired peers at the winter sports clinic will go a long way in his follow-on care and quality of life.
“This is helping him see that there are no boundaries and no limitations,” she said. “He’s getting an opportunity to see that as he works with instructors in adaptive ways, he can excel.”