- Associated Press - Sunday, July 6, 2014

WEST HAVEN, Conn. (AP) - They all walk through the doors the same way on their first day, says Eastern Blind Rehab Center Chief Bernadette Kern.

“I wish I could take a video of them when they enter and when they leave,” she said. “Blindness is a great equalizer.”

Kern was speaking about the men and women, veterans of the armed forces, who have made the tough decision to seek help in managing their blindness. They hail from up and down the East Coast, a total of 13 states. Kern said the new arrivals all exhibit the same demeanor. Head down. Guarded expressions. Hesitancy to answer basic questions.

Some may be retired attorneys and some may be dockworkers but Kern said all of them share two important things in common, regardless of social, economic or racial background.

“They share blindness and a military career,” she said. “I’m telling you, there’s nothing stronger than those two bonds.”

Meet Bob Campaniel, a Korean War veteran from Long Island.

Campaniel, 78, said he began losing his sight after he turned 70. Campaniel cannot see faces due to a blind spot that affects his center of vision. Kern said he developed macular degeneration, a condition that usually affects older adults. On Tuesday, Campaniel was working with Olivia D’Angelos, a low-vision specialist. Campaniel’s condition has deteriorated to the point where he can no longer read his own mail.

D’Angelos has been helping him work with a machine that can zoom in and blow up smaller images. He places his hand underneath the scanner and it shows up on the screen, every crease, wrinkle and detail of skin now visible to him.

“This will change my life,” he said.

Campaniel remembers his first day at the center. It was May 5. The characterizations Kern provided about first-day program participants are true, he said.

“Of course, you’re apprehensive when you get in here,” he said. “But it was like when I was in the service. You get used to it. You get used to your surroundings. You meet people going through the same thing. Looking back on the service, it wasn’t so bad. Look at how it’s helping me now.”

Like a majority of the veterans who come through the center, Campaniel’s vision problems are not service-connected. Mark Matthiessen, an orientation and mobility specialist, said that fact does not matter.

“They are promised a lot of things when they agree to catch a bullet for their country,” Matthiessen said.

Matthiessen said he decided to pursue his current career following 9/11.

“Like a lot of people, I decided to reassess,” he said.

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