This Veterans Day, as the sun rises, Air Force veteran Brian O’Connell will perform a seemingly simple task but one that is deeply personal and meaningful for him. It’s something he’s been doing for many years on November 11.
Locating his three by five-foot U.S. flag, Brian walks it to the front porch of his Greenville, South Carolina home. There, with the help of the very limited vision he still has, Brian carefully arranges the flag for display throughout the day.
“One thing I’ve always done after I have the flag up is step back a little and render a salute,” he says, “reflecting on the way it connects me to my own service and to the service of many of my friends and other significant people who have given so much.”
Brian served 26 years through several combat theaters – Panama, the Persian Gulf, Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He served three tours as a B-52 electronic warfare officer and performed additional duties as an academic and flight instructor, operations staff officer, air liaison officer, program manager, and squadron commander. He retired once and was recalled to active duty after the September 11 attacks.
After retiring for a second time, Brian briefly worked in the defense industry before deciding to prioritize his family and pursue his hobbies and new dreams. He took a job as a teacher, working with Air Force Junior ROTC youth and coaching youth baseball. All the while, battling a glaucoma diagnosis that would eventually take his sight in 2016, forcing him to retire from teaching.
“I felt lost, alone, and didn’t know what to do next,” he says.
Then, while attending a Department of Veterans Affairs blind rehabilitation program, Brian was introduced to BVA. During his time in the program, he joined BVA. He was nervous, but excited, to participate in the activities that TEAM BVA had to offer. In January 2022, he attended a week-long TEAM BVA 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,” he says. “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 ski slopes was still another connection he discovered at the STARS Ranch.
“You know, when I was more or less homebound early on after losing my sight, I didn’t know or realize anyone else was visually impaired or blind,” he says. “It’s not about being on the slopes only—it’s this connection and this camaraderie that you’re able to enjoy, and then you don’t feel so alone.”
He also rediscovered his love of music and now plays trumpet in a local band while learning to play piano by ear. His newly discovered confidence and connections inspired Brian to accept an appointment to serve his fellow blinded veterans as BVA’s National Sergeant-At-Arms. He hopes to help other blinded veterans regain their confidence and sense of purpose through BVA’s adaptive sports programs and other initiatives.
We Need Your Support More Than Ever
With Veterans Day fast approaching, please consider a donation to BVA in honor of veterans like Brian O’Connell who have given so much to our country, only to experience a devastating loss of sight. The hope you offer is that many more like Brian may re-discover new potential in themselves. Your financial support for BVA will help us continue serving veterans with vision loss, from all generations, who have sacrificed so much.