By Ben Sherman, Fort SillOctober 13, 2011
FORT SILL, Okla. -- Most people take their sight for granted, until it goes away. That's exactly what happened to Vietnam veteran Mike Stephens.
"It's not something that you expect to happen," Stephens said, with a touch of emotion in his voice. "One day, I was playing pool with some guys and suddenly I couldn't see the end of the pool table, and people thought I was joking around. I wasn't joking. I was serious."
Doctors told Stephens that something happened to his retinal nerves. And that was the day, 20 years ago, that he decided he would have to deal with it. Stephens has received lots of help from a support group for blind and visually impaired veterans at NewView Oklahoma, formerly the Oklahoma League for the Blind.
NewView recently brought Stephens and 16 veterans and their sighted buddies to Fort Sill so they could reconnect with their military days. These veterans ages ranged from their 20s into their 80s.
"The veterans are at Fort Sill, going through the Field Artillery Museum and they're looking at some modern army equipment," said Tom Larson, NewView communications director. "When you're blind or visually impaired you are limited to some extent. This gives them an opportunity to get in the museum with a guide who can help them. We have permission for them to touch some of the artifacts, so they get a museum experience that they might not get otherwise."
Veterans of all ages enjoyed looking at an Army Willys jeep, complete with a 75mm M1A1 pack-howitzer from World War II. The jeep and field gun were completely restored by retired Staff Sgt. Dustin Roderigas, Field Artillery Museum assistant exhibits specialist. Roderigas pointed out the jeep's features to younger veterans while those from WWII and the Korean War added their personal stories about the Army's fabled workhorse.
The veterans were not the only ones who benefited from this event.
"I think it's a great part of the Army tradition," said Drill Sergeant (Staff Sgt.) Brian Johns. "It becomes a part of who you are. The people who serve will become your family and it means a lot for the veterans to reconnect with their past." Johns was one of five drill sergeants who showed the veterans how current equipment is different.
"So many things have changed," said Stephens. "They've got so much protection that we didn't have. When we went over to battle in Vietnam all you had was your shirt, your helmet and your trousers and your boots. And your weapons. That's all you had.
"So it's really, really neat to get out here and see all the new equipment that they have and the new weaponry that they have," Stephens said. "Of course, all the things that they've showed us today are way heavy, but it protects them."
Johns spent time with Stephens, showing him different weapons and explaining the differences from other weapons. Stephens was particularly interested in the M249 squad automatic weapon, or SAW. Stephens held the SAW and said it would have been good to have those in Vietnam.
Larson is glad that Fort Sill made this experience possible. "I really enjoy helping this group of veterans. It's a great group of guys. We have a lot of fun together and it's great to see them out and having a good time."
And, for Stephens it was a great chance to meet the Soldiers at Fort Sill. "To get up here and actually talk to them is great. I said to them, 'Thank you for your service.' And it's neat to know these guys and know that they are doing a fantastic job. They're looking out for us."