Program teaches veterans how to maximize remaining sight, maintain independence

At 101, Carl Paul still likes to do things for himself.

He’s a strong-willed World War II veteran who parachuted into Sicily with the 82nd Airborne Division, offered comfort to liberated inmates at a Nazi prison camp and built a sprawling ranch in Idaho where he raised a family with a wife he met overseas during the war.

“I worked a long time, and hard,” he says.

Lately, though, living has grown increasingly difficult. He’s been losing his vision steadily for three years, causing him to rely on others more than ever.

“I always had the best eyesight,” he said.

These days, Paul is getting help learning how to make the most of his vision and regain his independence around the house. He’s enrolled in a two-month program where he gets personal training from counselors at the Department of Veterans Affairs American Lake campus Blind Rehabilitation Center.

The Lakewood program is one of 13 around the country where veterans get intense vision counseling in six- to eight-week bursts. This one can host up to 15 patients, each of whom stays in dorms and attends seven classes per day.

It’s a blessing to veterans whose days are darkening as they grow older. The American Ophthalmology Association estimates that about 160,000 military veterans are legally blind.

“It’s like you’re in a cloud of gnats and it just gets darker and darker and darker,” said Chuck Leavitt, a retired Army colonel from Oak Harbor.

Most of the veterans are in the program seeking help for degenerative diseases. The average age among patients at American Lake is 67, meaning they tend to be Vietnam and Korea-era veterans.

Patients take one-on-one courses on mobility, computer skills, basic living and working with their hands. They practice using magnifiers and other tools to help with reading. They also get time for recreation. In some cases, they’ll take up golf or fishing.

“Everything they used to do, if it was important to them, we try to find a way to do it with them,” manual skills instructor Lynne Renner said.

The blind center is also a place for healing when veterans get together and share their stories.

Paul quickly became a favorite when counselors learned he had parachuted into Sicily and Normandy with the 82nd Airborne.

They figured out he’d be spending his 101st birthday with them this week, so they threw a party where high-ranking Army dignitaries stopped by to wish him well. Paul’s eyes welled up as he shook hands and received hugs.

He took their breath away when he told the story of how he went to war and met the love of his life.

It began when he joined the Army in early 1942 and volunteered for an airborne assignment so he could get the extra pay that goes to paratroopers. He rose through the ranks quickly, becoming a first sergeant by the summer of 1943, which gave him responsibility for dozens of soldiers in the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

He saw his first real fighting in Sicily. He also fought in the D-Day invasion and later as the 82nd pushed through Holland.

While waiting in Leicester, England, for his next mission, he met the woman who would become his wife.

Paul and then-Veronica Gertrude Park-Scott went to a party as acquaintances. He stood up for her when another soldier spilled beer on her.

The two spent more time together. He let her pick out a $400 diamond ring one day. He got a 10-day leave from Holland, and they got married. The bride wore a dress sewn from a parachute.

The 82nd pushed through northern Europe in 1944 and 1945. Paul was with its paratroopers just after they liberated the Wobellin concentration camp in May 1945.

“It’s something one never, never forgets,” he said.

He came home to the states in September 1945. Vera joined him in Idaho in 1946. They had three daughters. She died in November 2010.

Paul has been living in Spokane with a niece recently. He enjoyed his birthday in Lakewood Wednesday and seemed to light up when other veterans from the 82nd Airborne shook his hand.

“The next 100 will take a lot longer,” he joked.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@