Blinded Veterans Association meets in Salisbury for the first time.

Published 12:05 am Sunday, April 17, 2016

By Rebecca Rider

SALISBURY — When Charlie Breese found out he was losing his vision, he went through a few doctors before someone thought to connect the U.S. Navy veteran with services designed specifically for veterans.

“Blind services from the VA are like a well-kept secret,” he said.

Breese, who had been seeing a private physician, was connected to a Visual Impairment Services Team coordinator, who put him in touch with rehabilitation centers and the Blinded Veterans’ Association.

“It changed my life,” he said.

The N.C. regional group of the Blinded Veterans’ Association held its yearly regional meeting Saturday at the East Innes Street Courtyard Marriott. It’s the first time the association has met in Salisbury, and the small conference room was full of people with stories like Breese’s.

The Blinded Veterans Association is a national organization started in 1945 that’s part advocacy group, part resource network and is always welcoming. The association has 52 regional groups and for many, the camaraderie the association offers through regional groups and local chapters is something that can’t be replaced.

“Being blind is a lonely thing, you know,” N.C. Regional group President Vernon Richmond said.

Blinded veterans may feel isolated, especially if they are the only blind person in their neighborhood. But hearing other people’s stories and their struggles can give the veterans the strength they need to overcome their own.

“We’re there to support them and help them through the hard time,” Richmond said.

The association’s motto is “blinded veterans helping blinded veterans,” and the members strive to do that in any way they can – be it individually, or as a group. Whether it be chatting at monthly chapter meetings, offering scholarships, advocating for legislation or helping connect veterans to rehabilitation or medical services, it’s a connection that can be life changing for a blinded veteran.

“It made me realize I’m not alone, I’m not by myself . . . there’s help out there,” Regional group Vice President Vance Eller said.

For Breese, the services he was connected to through the VA and the association meant that he could continue doing what he loved: woodworking. At a Blinded Rehabilitation Center in Birmingham, Alabama, Breese learned how to reuse a table saw. At the end of his stay, he was given a table saw designed to shut down in 1/5000 of a second if fingers or skin came too close to the blade.

It means that Breese’s wife, Bonnie, can let him work without worry. Bonnie said Breese builds tables, bookcases, Christmas ornaments and turns bowls.

At the annual meeting, members listen to keynote speakers, look at new adaptive devices, hear from medical professionals about new services and surgeries and elect officers for the next year. But it’s also a chance for blinded veterans from across the state to spend some time together and connect.

The only requirement for joining the association is to be a legally blind veteran – Eller said that blindness does not have to be a result of service. The Southern Piedmont chapter of the association meets on the first Thursday of every month at the Golden Corral in Concord. Those interested in attending should contact Vance Eller at 704-636-1472 for more information.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.