- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 24, 2005

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Making the Army’s new camouflage uniform isn’t easy for Dorothy Velez, who has been blind since birth.

She can’t see the needle on the custom sewing machines, so she checks her work by feel before handing each piece to another visually impaired woman, among several dozen sight-impaired people working on the uniform for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This is a little more complex than a lot of the stuff we sell out there,” said Enrique Delgado, a project manager at the San Antonio Lighthouse, the nonprofit agency for the blind that employs Mrs. Velez. “If I had to put it on a scale between 1 and 10, I’d say 10.”

The arrangement was made possible by a decades-old law requiring the military and other federal agencies to purchase products made at competitive prices by agencies that employ the blind and people with severe disabilities.

The Army contract calls for about 60,000 pairs of trousers to be made by San Antonio Lighthouse this year and 120,000 pairs at El Paso Lighthouse for the Blind.

Similar work, along with production of the accompanying uniform jacket, is being performed by sight-impaired workers in North Carolina, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, according to the National Industries for the Blind of Alexandria which oversees the contract.

The three-year contract is worth about $15 million to the participating nonprofit agencies, said Jim Gibbons, NIB’s president. Workers in San Antonio are paid $8 to $13 per hour plus benefits, Mr. Delgado said.

The fabric for the advanced combat uniform is a mix of light green, tan and gray that blends into urban, desert and forest environments. The uniform also was designed to accommodate new body armor.

Farther down the line, John Powers, 66, uses a pair of bright spotlights to illuminate the stitching as he sews hook-and-loop fasteners on the cargo pockets. Mr. Powers, an Air Force veteran, was diagnosed four years with macular degeneration, a gradual deterioration of the central portion of the retina. It is the leading cause of blindness for aging Americans.

He has a grandson stationed at Fort Hood in central Texas who could see duty in Iraq. “It would be funny if I made a pair of pants that were given to him,” said Mr. Powers, a two-year Lighthouse employee. “I’d certainly want them to be good.”

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