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Wendy Reuer, Published June 02 2013

Operation Night Vision sends local man, son on adventure

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Retired Army National Guard member Eric Marts slowly made his way down a mountainside near here just after sunset Friday.

It was a precarious trek for someone who is blind.

The former master sergeant’s vision started deteriorating in 2006 while serving in heavy combat areas of Iraq with Company B of the Minnesota National Guard’s 2/136th Infantry Combat Arms Battalion, part of the 34th Infantry Division.

Although Marts’ loss of vision began as early as 2006 when a blast went off under a vehicle he was riding in, he convinced superiors he was still vital to the mission and stayed in combat until July 2007. Marts now lives in Moorhead and realized his dream of becoming an on- air personality when he launched a WDAY 970 AM radio show called “Heroes of the Heartland.”

But until Operation Night Vision, adventures and sports such as judo, archery and zip lining seemed a forgotten activity.

Night Vision recently sent Marts, his son Seth and nine other veterans with vision impairments or injuries – and Marts’ guide dog, Beacon – to Birmingham on an action-packed adventure.

From Marts’ arrival in Alabama on Wednesday until his return on Sunday, the activities ranged from judo, scuba diving and zip lining to archery and shooting a sounding rifle with famed NRA firearms instructor and “Top Shot” contestant Amanda Hardin.

“It was pretty cool,” Marts said.

This is the first Operation Night Vision trip for Marts. Besides focusing on showing veterans with vision impairments what they could accomplish, the trip helped veterans’ guides or family and friends experience what it was like to be blind.

“Other than putting a blindfold on, you really can’t experience what vision loss is like,” said Lima Foxtrot Director Susan Robinson.

Operation Night Vision is one of five Lima Foxtrot programs sponsored by Lakeshore Foundation, a nonprofit military assistance program. Robinson said Operation Night Vision is one of the few programs that focus on veterans with vision problems.

“We have the knowledge and expertise to be able to create an entire program geared towards those individuals,” Robinson said. “It is different than if you’ve lost a limb or had traumatic brain injuries.”

The Operation Night Vision group planned to kayak on Saturday, something Marts said he didn’t think he could do blind.

“There are a lot of things a person might not think they could do,” he said. “There are wonderful people that are undertaking this.”

Robinson said the trips are kept to small groups to encourage camaraderie, something many veterans miss about the military.

“Their entire lives have changed in an instant,” she said. “Programs like this, when you’re able to talk to someone who has that shared experience, are very special to them.”

Night Vision also helps veterans give back to other veterans or their communities. Marts said that’s what he plans to do.

“I hope it does inspire other people from the area to do some of these things,” he said. “It was a very wonderful thing to take part in. It’s different for everybody that is here, but it’s definitely a confidence builder and a health builder.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530