Veterans Day is a unique and special day for those of us affiliated with the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA). In many cases, we share this day and its meaning with our families. I plan to use the day this year to contemplate, even more than I have in the past, the service and sacrifices of the veterans I have met over the years, many of whom have become my closest friends.
Col. Brian O’Connell, USAF (Ret) is one such veteran. For him, Veterans Day is deeply meaningful. This year, he will once again rise early and walk to the front porch of his home, flag in hand, to proudly display the Stars and Stripes.
“One thing I’ve always done after I have the flag displayed is move backward a couple of steps and render a salute,” he stated. “This is a way for me to direct my thoughts, even for a few moments, to my own service and to the service of my friends who have sacrificed so much more.”
Brian’s active-duty connections result from 26 years in several combat theaters—Panama, the Persian Gulf, Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Following his retirement, Brian worked in the defense industry before becoming an Air Force Junior ROTC teacher and coach.
Brian was diagnosed with glaucoma when, suddenly and unexpectedly, he experienced a pressure spike in his right eye that caused loss of most of his sight in that eye. Then, the same thing occurred in his left eye, resulting in legal blindness and forcing him to retire from teaching.
“I felt lost, alone, and didn’t know what to do next,” he recalled.
Not long after, Brian met one of BVA’s regional group officers and became acquainted with the TeamBVA adaptive sports initiative. Although he lacked confidence that he could participate as a legally blind person in the activities he once loved, he was willing to give them a try. Earlier this year, he attended a week-long TeamBVA program at the Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports (STARS) Ranch in Colorado.
“I used to ski a lot, but I didn’t ever expect to ski again, nor did I ever think much about it,” Brian said. “The very first time I went up on the lift with my guide, he told me to just follow him and see how it felt and, as I did that, I think a little tear ran down my cheek because it felt so damn good!”
Even more life changing to Brian than his reconnection to the ski slopes were the new friends and confidence he gained.
“When I was pretty much homebound early on after losing my sight, I didn’t know anyone else who was dealing with what I was,” he stated. “It’s not only about being on the slopes—it’s the connection and the camaraderie that you’re able to enjoy, and then you don’t feel so alone.”
The newly discovered confidence and connections have inspired Brian to accept an appointment to serve his fellow veterans as BVA’s National Sergeant-At-Arms. He has also rediscovered his trumpet-playing days with a local band. If that were not enough, Brian has taken up virtual piano lessons. Since he can no longer read music, he is learning how to play the piano by ear from a teacher in another part of the country. The way in which Brian pursues a life of purpose is an inspiration to his fellow veterans, especially those with sight loss.
With Veterans Day fast approaching, please consider a donation to BVA. The hope you offer us is that many other veterans like Brian who have given so much to our country, only to experience a devastating loss of sight, may rediscover new potential in themselves and what they are capable of accomplishing. Your financial support for BVA will make possible the fulfillment of that hope for veterans of all eras of service.
Donald D. Overton, Jr.
P.S. To view Brian’s recent reconnection to the ski slopes among new friends at the STARS Ranch, click here.