Wrangler Visits Veterans - Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VAMC
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Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VAMC

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Wrangler Visits Veterans

Wrangler the guide-Dog-in-training

Wrangler stops by the Crescenz VAMC to visit Veterans receiving Visual Impairment Services.

By Jennifer Askey
Monday, October 26, 2015

On his recent three-city tour, Wrangler the guide-dog-in-training, stopped by the Crescenz VA Medical Center to visit with Veterans and produce his Philadelphia spotlight for the NBC Today Show. The Today Show is sponsoring the yellow Labrador retriever and his journey toward becoming a full-fledged guide dog for a blind or visually impaired individual.

Saxon Eastman, his Guiding Eyes for the Blind trainer, is raising the lovable and energetic puppy as well as helping to bring international awareness to service dogs and disability through their daily appearances on the Today Show.

Veterans who receive Crescenz VAMC Visual Impairment Services were provided an opportunity to have a personal meet and greet with the canine star Oct. 22, when he joined them for an evening get-together. At almost 12 months of age, Wrangler is learning basic skills and house manners, and perfecting his social abilities by getting smack-dab into the middle of everything.

“This is just one of the opportunities that we provide our blind Veterans in their journey to readjustment to vision loss,” said GW Stilwell, the coordinator of the Visual Impairment Services Team at the medical center. “While the VA has had a long history of providing blind rehabilitation, we have always partnered with guide dogs schools such as Guiding Eyes, to facilitate placement of guide dogs. While not everyone chooses to use a guide dog, we want to make sure that those who are best served by the use of a dog are able to obtain one.”

Loping into the room to share his own excitement of being at the medical center and meeting the proud women and men who have served their nation, Wrangler didn’t miss a beat as he made the social rounds to say hello to each Veteran. Equally pleased to be part of the experience, the Veterans obediently “oohed” and “aahed” over their new four-legged friend, easily bursting into smiles and laughter as his tail brushed their knees and his cool nose nuzzled their hands.

The puppy with a purpose made no bones about his dedication to his mission as he worked the room, giving each Veteran a chance to stroke his soft fur and ask Eastman questions about how a guide dog could change their life through enhancing their mobility.

“I’ve talked with someone from Guiding Eyes before,” said Richard Bullard, a Navy Veteran, who struck up an instant friendship with the canine. “Since then I’ve just been thinking about it, but now that I’ve actually met Wrangler I would take him home right now!”

Veterans agreed that it was a terrific way to spend an evening, thanking staff and crew for the opportunity to get to know the puppy and how he could make difference in their life.

“Enabling events like this to occur is why I keep coming to work,” said Stilwell, as he watched Wrangler interact with the Veterans. "It’s only by the VA providing opportunities like this for our blind Veterans, that they will be able to discover opportunities that will help them embrace their personal quest to regain full independence and enjoy life as everyone does.”

Those with questions about the Visual Impairment Service or Blind Rehabilitation at the Crescenz VAMC can contact Stilwell at george.stilwell@va.gov.

Crescenz VAMC Blind and Visually Impaired Services for Veterans

On May 28, 1947, Harry S. Truman signed an order transferring all care of blind and visually impaired veterans to what is now the Department of Veterans Affairs.  That act set in motion the development of one of the finest blind rehabilitation systems in the world and the expansion of what has become Visual Impairment Services at the Crescenz VA Medical Center in Philadelphia.

In 1949, the first of 13 VA residential blind rehabilitation centers was opened to train blind veterans.  By the 1970s, a number of full-time VA employees known as Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST) Coordinators were being appointed at larger facilities, including the Crescenz VAMC, to recruit and case manage veterans being served at the blind centers.

Over the past 40 years the Crescenz VAMC has had only three VIST Coordinators, with the present coordinator GW Stilwell serving in that capacity for the past 25 years ~ both providing direct patient care and helping facilitate the growth of the program as noted below.  It is the coordinator’s job to identify legally blind veterans and service members and assist them in accessing a comprehensive continuum of care of low vision and blind rehabilitation services.  Removing barriers to successful rehabilitation by coordinating treatment of medical and social problems that might stand in the way is also an important role of the coordinator. The development of services at the Cresenze VAMC has mirrored the rapid expansion of visual impairment services across the VA health care system. 

Building on a base of excellent eye care provided by affiliations with the University of Pennsylvania and Salas University, the Crescenz VAMC began to provide basic, low vision care in the mid-1990s but still relied on VA blind centers and state and community agencies for the blind to provide higher level training.   In 2007, a Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialist (BROS) was added to provide direct training to veterans in their homes, preparing some for further training at VA blind centers while training others who could not leave home. Then in 2008, the Crescenz VAMC was one of 22 VAMCs funded to develop an Advanced Low Vision Clinic (ALVC).  Two full-time Blind Rehabilitation Specialists and a half-time Low Vision Optometrist were hired to train those with moderate vision loss.

Beyond simply teaching skills, staff at the Crescenz VAMC  strive to help veterans achieve overall adjustment to blindness by addressing every aspect of  the patients’ lives that have been affected by vision loss.

Statistically, the Crescenz VAMC is one of the biggest and busiest providers of visual impairment services in the Northeast. The coordinator has provided services to more than 300 individual patients over the last 12 months, with the Advanced Low Vision Clinic providing care to over 430 patients during that period.

Attached are two fact sheets from Blind Rehabilitation Services, VA Central Office, to provide a more comprehensive look at our full continuum of care.

Those with questions can contact Stilwell at george.stilwell@va.gov



Why Choose Visual Impairment Services at the VA?

Over the past 60 years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has developed a comprehensive continuum of care to provide a full range of services to visually impaired and legally blind veterans.  

Whether your eye condition has caused you to reach the stage where you are no longer able to read with normal glasses or you are facing severe vision loss that has affected all aspects of your life, VA Blind Rehabilitation Services ~ and the programs and staff ~ can help you.  The VA has helped thousands of veterans and service members adjust to vision loss through a caring approach that focuses on your goals.  Veterans who need assistance in learning to cross the street, cook dinner, use their computer again or just talk to other visually impaired Veterans, the VA Blind Rehabilitation and its local Visual Impairment Service Team coordinators, can help Veterans develop a plan that is personalized, proactive and patient–driven.

How to Access Visual Impairment Services and Blind Rehabilitation

In General:

To access visual impairment services and blind rehabilitation in the VA, a veteran must register and enroll as a patient in the VA.  That can be done on line, in person or by telephone.  In most cases, the Veteran need to have a copy of their separation papers from the service.  The following web site explains this process more fully:  http://www.va.gov/healthbenefits/apply/

Find out More:

At the Crescenz VAMC we share with Veterans that all major VA Medical Centers, and most large Community Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOCs), have appointed a Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST) coordinator who is responsible for ensuring that eligible, visually impaired veterans obtain care and training. We recommend that veterans, service members or their friends and family contact the nearest VIST coordinator to be evaluated for services and assisted with access.  A prospective patient need not be enrolled to make an inquiry to the VIST coordinator, however, and can simply call the nearest VA Medical Center or CBOC and ask for the VIST Coordinator.

Link to most recent list of VIST Coordinators:    http://www.rehab.va.gov/PROSTHETICS/blindrehab/VIST.asp

Link locates the nearest VA facility to you:



Link to learn more about what Blind Rehabilitation Service is and has to offer you: http://www.rehab.va.gov/blindrehab/


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