Fellow blind veterans didn’t see tears roll down the cheeks of mourners Thursday when friends eulogized Navy veteran Sandi Niccum.
But they felt the pain.
And they lauded her 5,000 hours of lifetime volunteer service to the Department of Veterans Affairs; her courage to accept the blindness that afflicted her later in life; her persistence; her sometimes annoying demands; her beauty; her love of country and friends; and her answer to duty when it called.
“We were all astounded by her energy, and we admired all of her talents in spite of her poor health and total blindness,” said Billie Dentremont, a World War II Coast Guard veteran and her longtime Women Veterans of Nevada associate.
“Sandi wasn’t always easy to share time with,” Dentremont told more than 100 veterans, friends and distant family members who gathered at the chapel of the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City.
“Sandi planned and she organized, and she always took charge. She knew what she wanted to do and how she wanted it done. And she wasn’t always so happy to compromise. But that was Sandi. She went full steam ahead.”
Joe Tasby, a Vietnam War combat veteran who followed Niccum’s footsteps to become president of the Blinded Veterans Association, was heartbroken by the loss of his 78-year-old friend.
She died Nov. 15, in the weeks following an ordeal when she sought treatment and pain relief for a colon disorder at the VA Medical Center in North Las Vegas only to face long waits in the emergency room and alleged disrespect from hospital staff.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Sandi,” Tasby said. “I don’t know how we became friends, but I am so blessed and so happy that we did. Sandi was, is and will always be my friend. Sail on.”
The eulogies for Niccum came a few hours after House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., released a letter he sent to VA Inspector General George Opfer calling for an investigation into Niccum’s experience at the VA Medical Center.
She “was made to wait six hours for emergency care and was repeatedly disrespected and mistreated by staff at the North Las Vegas VA medical Center,” reads the letter Miller signed Wednesday.
His letter, based on an eyewitness account, asks Opfer “to open an investigation … and determine what further action should be taken.”
News of Miller’s letter was welcomed by many at her memorial service, including two local VA employees.
“It’s going to shine a light on what’s going on at the VA and help veterans in the future,” said one of the VA employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Isabel Duff, the director of the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System, which runs the VA Medical Center in North Las Vegas, and local VA spokesman David Martinez didn’t attend, and they have not responded to a Review-Journal request for an interview about Niccum’s ordeal.
The long wait Niccum endured Oct. 22 compounded by frustration with incomplete radiology orders and alleged rude treatment increased her frustration to the point that she would pound her walking cane on the hospital floor, according to her neighbor, Dee Redwine, who escorted her to the medical center’s emergency room.
Before she died, Niccum asked Redwine to write a chronology of the VA experience and submit it to the Review-Journal. “She said, ‘This is wrong. We’re going to have to put this together and turn in a report so this won’t happen to someone else,’ ” Redwine said Nov. 25.
Dentremont said she was amazed how Niccum adapted to blindness.
“She would say, ‘Would you check to see if I have my tan shoes on?’ And I would always have to say, ‘Sandi, turn on the light so I can tell.’ She had prosthetic eyes as you know, and she would say, ‘Would you please check my eyes so they’re looking the same way?’ And she always did it with a smile, so matter-of-factly.”
Said Tasby’s daughter, Tiffini: “I will always speak my mind and always remain resilient just as you were in your fights and everything you did for the great United States. I love you so much.”
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308. Follow him on Twitter @KeithRogers2.