Anyone who visits the Jacksonville VA Outpatient Clinic will notice a new bronze American flag fastened to the wall near the main elevator.
The flag is barely larger than a foot square, but even people without sight can appreciate the gesture and understand the power of its message.
It’s meant to bring attention to the often-forgotten group of blind veterans in the area. The Pledge of Allegiance is written in Braille for anyone to feel.
“Don’t feel sorry for yourself,” Walt Peters said to the blind members of the audience during Wednesday’s commemoration ceremony. “Don’t allow yourself to sit around.”
Peters is a legally blind Army veteran who was born in Jacksonville but lives in St. Marys, Ga. He served as a special operations aviator in Vietnam and was the driving force behind bringing the Braille flag to the Jacksonville clinic.
He said doctors diagnosed him with chemical diabetes due to exposure to Agent Orange, and he now only sees silhouettes.
“We see with our hearts, not our eyes,” Peters said before the ceremony.
Peters donated the flag to the clinic to honor the roughly 1,000 blind veterans who receive services within the Veterans Health System in Florida, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. It’s the first Braille flag dedicated in the state.
Peters emphasized that the flag is meant for everyone in the blind community, not just veterans.
Daria Wells, coordinator for the North Florida/South Georgia visual impairment services team at the VA, said she has 307 legally blind veterans on her case load, including 11 women. She said many veterans know their sight is deteriorating but don’t realize they’re eligible for VA treatment.
“There are a lot of veterans who are over income so they do not qualify to get VA care,” Wells said. “But if they have a compensation and pension diagnosis and they declare them legally blind, no matter what their income is they are exempt co-pays for VA visits.”
She said a lot of veterans don’t realize they are eligible for vision benefits through the VA until they are forced to pay for pricey eye equipment through their optometrist.
Wells helps the blinded veterans on her roster with routine needs like transportation and prescription refills as well as more advanced treatments at inpatient facilities. She also conducts an annual review of their benefits in case they are eligible for something they aren’t receiving.
Jacksonville is set to welcome many more blind veterans to the area when the Blinded Veterans Association National Convention comes to the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront from Aug. 14-18.
“The main objective of the BVA is to say, ‘Hey, it’s not the end of the line, guys,’” said Paul Kaminsky, the Southeast regional director for the organization.
He said the group used to be much larger, with about 15,000 members. But now that all the blind veterans from World War I have died and the number of blind veterans from World War II is getting smaller every day, the group is left with about 9,000 members, Kaminsky said.
“Our qualifications for membership are kind of steep, give up your vision and your driver’s license and you can join,” Kaminsky said.
That doesn’t mean cutting out all activities.
Both Kaminsky and Peters still play golf, and Kaminsky said he even made his first hole-in-one this year.
“I have enough eyesight so I can see the back side of my yellow golf ball,” he said. That’s not the case once the ball leaves the tee.
Kaminsky and Peters rely on their friends to guide them around the course, but they both said they keep playing because they won’t let blindness stop them from remaining active.
That’s the kind of attitude Wells is trying to promote at the Jacksonville VA clinic.
She hosts a support group each month with about 15 regulars where they work on their perception of body and space. She said they usually do chair yoga for the last half hour to build strength.
“Most of my veterans don’t have other families,” Wells said. “It’s really about social and emotional support.”
Wells warned that some veterans feel their spouses should receive benefits due to blindness, but that’s not the case because blindness is not a debilitating disease — although many of the blind veterans rely on loved ones to get around on a daily basis.
Mike Taylor, 71, attended Wednesday’s ceremony with 11-year-old Emily Taylor. Emily held out her arm for support as her grandfather felt the path in front of him with his cane. They both ran their fingers across the Braille flag and sat in the front row to listen to Peters.
“It was very inspiring just seeing what they had done for the blinded veterans,” Emily said. “Putting out the flag just for them, it was very kind. I hope a lot of people will know that just because you can’t see, you can still feel.”
Her grandfather lost his leg and sight in 1968 during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and now the two live together on Fleming Island.
“She helps me get around, and today she brought me to a ceremony that was very important for me to attend,” Taylor said.
It was a chance for him to meet Peters and others who rely on the VA for assistance.
Advocacy for the blind has been a passion for Peters for years, and Wednesday he finally got the chance to meet someone he considers his equal in the push for awareness.
Randolph Cabral came up with the idea for the Braille flag when his father — a veteran — went blind in old age. Cabral’s father proudly displayed an American flag on his front porch and insisted family members acknowledged it each time they left the house.
Cabral told the crowd he realized he needed to do something when his father took his mother’s scarf and tried to display it because he thought it was the flag.
He said the American flag is the most recognizable in the world, but there was no way for the blind community to recognize its patriotic significance.
Now people who visit the Jacksonville clinic will have that chance, whether they have sight or not.
Joe Daraskevich: (904) 359-4308