Service organization strives to guide blinded veterans

A service organization with one of the longest names exists to help local vision-impaired veterans in several ways.

The Southern Nevada Regional Group of the Blinded Veterans Association (SNRGBVA) has about 145 active members, according to 1st Vice President Sandy Niccum.

"To be a member, you have to have served in the military and be vision-impaired," Niccum said. "Whether one is fully blinded or just has very poor vision, it doesn't matter if the impairment was a result of being in the service or not. In many cases, veterans develop poor vision later in life due to any number of causes, but as long as they have served honorably, they are eligible for membership.

"We have bimonthly meetings, held at the American Legion Post 8 in Las Vegas, and we have speakers from all over."

She said recent speakers included representatives from the FBI, firefighters and VA hospital workers reporting on the new Southern Nevada Health Care System (VA) medical center that opened last year in North Las Vegas.

"The speakers educate our members on what's out there," Niccum said. "They usually tell us what is offered in the community and sometimes offer safety tips. The firefighters taught us how to get out safely when there is a fire. People learn a lot from them."

As with many veterans service organizations, recruiting new members is always on the forefront. "The younger ones coming back from the Middle East, we don't get too many yet as members," she said. "We try to meet with anyone that is in veterans groups, and of course, we go to the monthly VA commanders meetings."

The VA holds monthly meetings with commanders of leading veterans groups, and Niccum attends to represent the SNRGBVA. The VA operates an eye clinic and evaluates and attends to blinded veterans who sign up. Niccum said her group is trying to develop a school education program for selected grade schools or high schools where members would go to speak to students to inform them about the blinded community. The group participates in all the VA Stand Downs that provide services to needy veterans and also participates in other VA community outreach programs.

"We have someone there with our white canes, and we explain about the white canes," Niccum said. "The white canes are our eyes. We guide with it. The blind cannot get a cane until they are trained by educators about what the cane is for."

Niccum said there is a specialist at the VA who trains veterans in special equipment and white canes and how to go shopping and get around the neighborhood with little or no assistance.

If a sighted individual calls her for advice, Niccum said, "We try to help them whether they are blind or not. We also work with widows who may lose their blind husbands, and they don't know anything about getting their VA benefits. We try to educate them on that ahead of time, but people don't always listen."

She said sometimes widows can receive part of their late husband's disabled veterans pensions. "Spouses sometimes can get a portion of that," she said. "But we will step forward and try to help them. We also offer funeral information services. All these things we teach in advance, but they don't always retain it. It goes in one ear and out the other."

Transportation can also offer challenges for blinded veterans. The group advises members about Paratransit and VA transportation services and other busing information. Those services will pick up and return veterans for medical appointments only.

The SNRGBVA is a part of the Blinded Veterans Association headquartered in Washington, D.C.

"They do a lot of legislation; that's where the heavy work goes on," Niccum said. "They get their budgeting from the VA for blindness, and they are lobbyists."

The national group publishes a magazine, and Niccum puts out a local newsletter. "I always include information about veterans in large 16-point type and above. I really enjoy helping them because that makes them feel good."

Niccum is a five-year veteran of the Navy medical corps. She said she contracted spontaneous diabetes years ago and slowly lost her vision. "You live with it. It's like any other thing. It's a slowdown. Many get diabetes later in life. Mine came up when I was young, 23. If they catch it early enough and you follow the regime, you can do better."

She said members work with nutritionists and others who are health experts. "I don't want to scare anyone, but when you have something go wrong, you should want to correct it. Many times I ask people, 'Are you doing this, eating right, exercising?' " But she said people will often ignore that and eat and do what they want to anyway.

"It's not common sense," she said. "Everyone knows there are rules for everything. We try to help them in any way we can."

Local board members include President Joe Tasby, 2nd Vice President David Meyrick, Secretary Hector Dion, Treasurer James Korp, Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Harrison and Chaplain Rev. Paul LeMay.

Niccum gets around with a cane and occasionally hires an aide. Because of her diabetic fingers, she is unable to use Braille as she cannot distinguish the dot patterns. She has praise for guide dogs but feels she could not properly care for one. "They are like children," she said.

Any individual who wants to join her group or to obtain more information, or if someone wants to volunteer to speak at a meeting or attend as a visitor can call 702-658-6323. For more information about the VA eye clinic, call 702-791- 9000 and dial "0."

Journalist and author Chuck N. Baker is an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and a recipient of the Purple Heart. He is the managing editor of Nevada's Veterans Reporter newspaper and the host of the "Veterans Reporter Radio Show" on KLAV (1230 AM) from 8-9 p.m. Thursdays and the "Veterans Reporter News" at 2:30 a.m. Fridays on VEGAStv KTUD-Cable 14.