The Central Blind Rehabilitation Center (CBRC) at Hines VA Hospital helps veterans “take back their lives”.
Alexander Perez-Vargas maneuvers through the Forest Park streetscape – the barbershop poles, cafe planters and lampposts – like a man who has navigated without sight all his life.
At a busy intersection, he prefers to be guided by humming car engines and the swoosh of traffic rather than a high-pitched noise that beeps the visually impaired toward a talking “walk” button.
“I always like being like that – brave,” Perez, 29, explained later from a room at the Blind Rehabilitation Center at Hines VA Hospital, where he had been living for more than a month.
He is still finding his way, like an increasing number of young veterans who have lost their sight. Perez left his wife and home in Tampa, Fla., to spend weeks at the facility off Roosevelt Road near Maywood.
Since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Hines has hosted 65 members of the armed forces who served in Iraq and Afghanistan – more than any of the nine other VA blind centers across the country. Since 2005, the influx has more than doubled the number of blind or visually impaired 20- to 39-year-olds who stay for weeks at a time or longer to learn important survival skills, from operating a stove to walking unfamiliar streets, such as the stretch in downtown Forest Park.
“It gives individuals the self-esteem and confidence to take back their lives,” said Gerald Schutter, chief of the center.
In 2001, Perez was an Army private first class serving in Afghanistan. He worked in artillery, pulling shells and firing up cannons on tanks. It was a dream job for Perez, who grew up in Puerto Rico and had always wanted to serve in the military.
A year into his service, Perez began feeling dizzy spells and seeing black spots at the corners of his eyes. When an unrelated knee injury sent him home to Puerto Rico, Perez mentioned the eye problems to a doctor. He thought the doctor would tell him he was working too hard or not getting enough nutrition overseas.
Instead, Perez learned he had chronic myelogenous leukemia that had gone untreated for so long it permanently damaged his retinas. Because there was no genetic history of the disease in his family, doctors told Perez it could have been triggered by high amounts of radiation he was exposed to in Afghanistan, he said.
For the next two years, Perez woke up each morning at his parents’ house seeing less than the night before. By 2003, he was 22 years old and completely blind.
“It was frustrating. Painful,” Perez said. “I never thought that things like that were going to happen.”
Perez enrolled at a blind rehabilitation program in San Juan that taught him basic skills. He got married and, in 2005, moved to Tampa, where his wife had roots.
But without the tools to navigate the public transportation system or to explore opportunities at a local college, Perez spent most days at home rotating between eating, working out and sleeping. At his darkest moments, he sat on the edge of his bed with the door closed, afraid he would never be able to pursue the goals he once had for himself.
“That wasn’t an option,” he said. “So I decided to move forward again.”
Perez was accepted into Hines’ program, provided to any veteran with “severe functional vision loss” – service-connected or not – and paid for by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
When he arrived, he was paired with an instructor who designed a curriculum tailored to his needs.
In classrooms set up like apartments, kitchens and even work sheds, blind veterans learn tasks such as paying an electric bill, boiling water and operating power tools. In computer workshops, they are trained to use special reading machines and surf the Internet. Outside, the vets practice riding the bus and crossing traffic-filled intersections.
Perez’s schedule focused on computer training skills and mobility. In between city-navigating exercises, he spent hours learning computer programs for the visually impaired and how to use a pedestrian GPS device. He added guitar lessons for fun.
Since younger veterans like Perez began arriving, Hines officials have added new equipment to the fitness center and White Castle to the restaurant list. Teachers have planned baseball and basketball outings, learned to ride tandem bikes and memorized the names of local watering holes for single soldiers who want to meet women.
“They’re young. They’re competitive,” Schutter said. “The biggest challenge was getting staff geared up to work with them.”
Officials knew that if the blind center tweaked a few details, the camaraderie between veterans would do the rest of the work in welcoming the newest patients.
Perez said he noticed the older, raspier voices when he first pulled up a chair in the dining room and listened to his classmates introduce themselves. But he wasn’t intimidated.
“It’s like family being here,” Perez said. “We are all veterans.”
After completing six weeks of training, Perez said, he planned to move back to Tampa and use his new computer skills to enroll in classes to become a personal fitness trainer.
He’ll leave, like all graduates of the program, with an average of $20,000 of adapted technology for the visually impaired, such as a talking laptop computer, a pedestrian GPS tool and a portable bar-code reader that recognizes thousands of items at the grocery.
“Now that I’ve got a GPS, it will be easy to get from point A to point C,” Perez said.
One of the highlights of summer training at the Hines blind center is a golf outing at one of 16 clubs organized by the Chicago Area Golf Swing Club. On a perfect July morning, volunteers from across the area convene at Willow Crest Golf Club in Oak Brook to lead one of several blind veterans through the course.
The sky is bright blue, and a light breeze allows weeping willow branches to sway and ripples to form on the course pond. The beauty, juxtaposed with the sight of Perez approaching the green, takes volunteer Jack McInerney’s breath away.
“He’s the youngest guy I’ve seen over the years,” said McInerney, a retired Marine and longtime high school football coach. “We talk about heroes, LeBron James, Michael Jordan. Those are not heroes. These are the real heroes.”
Moments later, Perez’s volunteer partner leads him from the cart path to the green. He helps him get into stance, then walks over to the hole, which he taps with the flag so Perez can hear where to aim.
“It’s gonna be a challenge. Whenever you’re ready, Alex,” the volunteer says.
Perez, undaunted, takes a few practice swings, then gives the ball a clean strike. It glides smoothly across the green into the hole.
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