BOISE -- A local organization dedicated to helping put wounded veterans through college faced an unexpected challenge with its first group of five student veterans: Three of them are visually impaired and require extra training, tools, and technology before they can even set foot in a classroom.
The Wyakin Warrior Foundation is the group now helping all five of those veterans, and mentors are pioneering new ways to teach and help those veterans who are recently blind.
'It kind of derails your whole life plan'
"I think for a lot of people, it sort of derails what you thought maybe you were going to do," Wyakin Warrior student Josh Barnes said. "I was working on aircraft, and I was like, this is awesome. I'm going to do this forever. And I'm not able to do that anymore. So it kind of derails your whole life plan and you've got to start back from square one."
Barnes, an Iraq War veteran, became legally and functionally blind a few years ago while serving in the Air Force as a Guidance and Control Avionics Technician.
"So I worked on helicopters and a few other aircraft, and they have a lot of radiation, like radar and you have microwave lining systems, and and things like that," Barnes said. "I got exposed a little too much I guess and had a reaction and ended up losing all of my central vision."
'At first, definitely, it's difficult'
Barnes has his peripheral vision, so he can see some things and get around familiar places, but he can't read without magnification or technology that actually reads aloud to him.
"At first, definitely, it's difficult. Especially with losing your vision, you sort of lose your ability to drive which really cuts your independence down. So I'd be lying if I said I wasn't pissed off for a while," Barnes said. "It's kind of like you get at this low spot and finally you're like, I gotta do something with my life. I can't just be worthless forever."
With the help of the Wyakin Warrior Foundation, Barnes is working toward a health sciences degree at Boise State University and hopes to get a masters in public health to work for the Centers for Disease Control or Central District Health.
Barnes has helped create a checklist for other wounded veterans who might want to apply for the Wyakin Warrior Foundation with the hope that he can help others get where he is.
'Learning math is the biggest challenge'
The Wyakin Warrior Foundation says while both Boise State University and the College of Western Idaho (where another blind warrior plans to attend) provide resources, because their three veterans who are newly blind, they aren't yet equipped to even work with those resources. Essentially, the veterans must relearn to learn.
"The three students, they're now enrolled for spring semester. They have their resources identified. They have notetakers. They have their software and hardware that they need for class," Wyakin Warrior Foundation Program Director Roy Ledesma said. "Here's an equation: (2x+7)=8. So, how do you take notes on that, notetaker? And then the software can't read that. So that's the big challenge."
"Learning math is the biggest challenge," Ledesma said. "With our warriors, this is a huge challenge, because in their minds when the teacher recites the equation, they can see it, but math is a visual subject."
'As unfortunate as it is, I'm a visual learner'
For Wyakin Warrior James Nealey, visualization is easy and difficult. He explains when he had his sight, he was a visual learner, not an auditory learner. Although he's blind except for light perception, Nealey still considers himself a visual learner; it's just different now.
"When I was getting out [of the Army], I was pretty much told there's almost nothing you can do when you get out after losing your vision. Because ignorance of people, they don't know any better. They don't know how successful blind people really are," Nealey said.
Nealey is Army Iraq War veteran who lost his sight because of a genetic mutation that set in while he was serving. He first noticed his eyes were failing while working on a helicopter in March 2009; about six months later, his eyesight was completely gone.
'He is processing it visually. It's amazing what he can do'
In the last couple weeks, Nealey has started working with Linda Kimura, a tutor from Veterans Upward Bound. She is helping him brush up on math skills, and like he'll have in class, a notetaker practices with them.
"I give the session, and Kelsey [the notetaker] then does the notes, types them up for him and puts them in a word document, and then he's got a program that will read that back to him," Kimura said.
During the session, one thing is striking: Nealey solves math problems without writing anything down, and often without asking for anything repeated.
"I had given him a really long problem, and I gave it to him once. I said 'I'll go back over it and tell you what the numbers are again', but before I had a chance to do that, he gave me the answer, and I hadn't even figured out the answer myself!" Kimura said.
"Since I could see previously, I know what it looks like, I just have to figure out how to put it in my head, and come up with the equation," Nealey said. "Almost like how you would write down on a scratch piece of paper the problem, I can somehow do it in my head a little bit and spit out a number. As long as it's not too complex!"
'This is groundbreaking'
Nealey wants to get an MBA, then get a government job, and eventually be a local business owner. With that ambition, his math courses will get more difficult, and it will be harder for him to memorize lengthy problems.
With that upcoming challenge in mind, Nealey's mentor, Vic Hill, who's also a college math teacher, developed a brand new way to teach Nealey.
"The solution was to create little tiles, not unlike dominos or scrabble tiles, that have both the letter or the number and its equivalent in Braille on them," Hill said.
Hill named his invention the VIP Math Slate. He holds all the rights to his product and is already working on patenting the learning tool so other blind students and their teachers may use it.
Project will help other 'blind, visual learners'
"I'm a visual learner," Nealey said. "So having the ability to touch something like this and actually be able to feel it and kind of understand the math problem instead of just knowing it's on a piece of paper and I don't understand it. This actually I think will help those other blind, visual learners."
"We may have something unique here that our guys, our Wyakin Warriors, will add the polish to," Hill said. "They can concentrate on math and not have to worry about mechanics. That will be real growth opportunity for them."
Nealey will begin taking classes at CWI in the spring; he's hoping his schedule will work out so that Hill can also be his math teacher at the college.