WMU News

WMU gearing up for influx of injured soldiers

Oct. 9, 2004

KALAMAZOO--For the first time since the Vietnam War, blindness and low vision experts, including those at Western Michigan University, are gearing up for an influx of newly blinded veterans, this time from Iraq.

Dr. Paul E. Ponchillia, chair of the WMU Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies, says his department is mobilizing to address the latest effects of the war in Iraq. WMU is the home of the oldest and largest graduate level personnel preparation program for rehabilitation teachers, orientation and mobility instructors, teachers of children with visual impairments and rehabilitation counselors specializing in blindness and low vision. The Veterans Administration hires many WMU graduates who are rehabilitation teachers or orientation and mobility specialists.

"Our graduate students study multiple disabilities in addition to blindness so they can better serve people who experience vision loss," says Dr. Susan Ponchillia, coordinator of the rehabilitation teaching program at WMU. "However, this new situation in the aftermath of conflict in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan, will require even greater skills and more teamwork with other healthcare professionals. What we have are very young soldiers, often still in their teens or early 20s, who survive roadside bombings, but who have multiple permanent injuries. Adjustment to blindness is difficult for anyone. However, waking up in a military hospital missing a hand or leg, or having a brain injury combined with blindness is even more difficult for anyone to face. So we are preparing our graduates for the multiple challenges of working with newly blinded soldiers with other physical injuries."

Events taking place in Iraq are expected to increase the likelihood of multiple injuries to the head, face and limbs, experts say. Kevlar body armor, now being issued to all U.S. soldiers, is reducing the number of deaths in combat. However, battlefield injuries involving the head, hands, arms, feet or legs comprise almost 60 percent of the nonfatal wounds received by men and women in the military. Roadside bombings made of improvised explosives throw shrapnel and dirt upward, tearing into unprotected parts of the body.

According to Veterans Administration Blind Rehabilitation Center officials, wounded soldiers are returning with multiple injuries. Often an injury that causes blindness also results in traumatic brain injury, making recovery more difficult. Head injuries can affect the normal adjustment to blindness by causing behavioral and cognitive issues, further complicating rehabilitation and return to a normal life. In addition, men and women wounded in battle or roadside bombings with severe injuries to their arms, hands or lower extremities may lose limbs.

There are already more than a dozen soldiers with traumatic brain injury who have also lost their sight. It is unlikely all will receive blind rehabilitation services at the same time, but since most VA blind centers hold only about 20-25 blind veterans, the number of newly blinded soldiers is significant.

The Veterans Administration, recognizing the complexity of serving soldiers who have lost sight and also received brain injuries has developed a sequential plan to first send brain-injured soldiers to the VA brain injury unit in Richmond, Va. When the soldiers are ready for blind rehabilitation services, they will go to the Western Blind Rehabilitation Center in Palo Alto, which has been designated as the unit to provide specialized blind rehabilitation services to brain injured blind soldiers.

Paul Ponchillia reports a chronic shortage of personnel in all areas of blindness and low vision expertise. "So we anticipate a further shortage of graduates to fill positions at blind centers, such as those operated by the Veterans Administration," he says. Federal funding to help support more personnel preparation has been made available to address the shortage, and WMU's recruitment efforts have intensified.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 269 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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