Tom Zampieri, head of the Blind Veterans Association, has pushed for increased funding since 2009, but has been frustrated by Congress and the Pentagon, which he said have consistently put a low priority on eye blast injuries even though these vastly outnumber other types of trauma.
Congress previously has appropriated up to $4 million.
About 15 percent of injuries from battlefield trauma are to the eyes, according to Defense Department statistics. Throughout the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, this has resulted in more than 197,000 ambulatory patients and more than 4,000 hospitalizations.
In addition, about 75 percent of troops who suffer traumatic brain injury also suffer some visual dysfunction, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Vision Center of Excellence has been struggling for funding and even a place from which to permanently operate since it was created in 2008.
It originally was to be funded at more than $6 million, but that was ultimately reduced to $3 million. The center was relegated to borrowed offices in Falls Church, Va., until finally moving into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at the end of 2011.
Since then – until the recent boost to $10 million – the vision center has received no more than $4 million for its work and research. Of course, the additional funding will not be spared from the sequestration process.
“The … $10 million will help, but even that is being cut by sequestration by 8 percent, to $9.2 million,” Zampieri said. “So it is vital we get the $10 million [sought] for FY 2014,” Zampieri said.
The Blinded Veterans Association, now backed by 10 other veterans groups, wants to see the vision research program funded to $10 million in 2014. That funding, the groups said in a jointly signed letter with the other veterans groups, would help ensure the individual and institutional commitment necessary for projects to prevent blindness and possibly restore the vision of those who have already lost it through injury or an impairment related to TBI.
“Whether a soldier is engaged directly in combat conditions or in activities that support the military, vision is the most critical of the five senses for optimal performance, accounting for 70 percent of our total sensory awareness,” the group stated.
The Vision Center of Excellence is also charged with creating an eye-injury registry for tracking the wounds and treatments sustained by servicemembers from the battlefield on through the care by VA providers or others charged with follow-on care.
The registry, which is still under development, would enable a doctor treating the soldier or veteran to immediately review every action or treatment already taken. The registry would also include servicemembers and veterans whose vision loss is related to traumatic brain injury, rather than direct eye injury.
Rep. Harry E. Mitchell, D-Calif., cited the importance of the registry when discussing the case of a Kentucky National Guardsman partially blinded by combat in Iraq who ultimately lost all his vision. Had the record of his treatment all been in one place, doctors would have been better and more quickly treat him once back in the U.S.
The delay caused the soldier to lose all his vision after an infection, Mitchell said in 2009 during a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Oversight.