From Semper-Fi to Semper-Eye
Behind the Eye
Gunnery Sergeant Donald A. Levesque (RET) comes from a small town in Massachusetts. In 1962 at the age of almost 19 years old, having three years work experience and being high school dropout, Levesque joined the United States Marines. After graduating from Parris Island, his assignments included "G" Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines at Kanioi Bay, Philippines, C Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines Camp Le Jeune, North Carolina; Drill Instructor at F Company, Second Recruit Training Battalion, Parris Island; and L Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Division, Viet Nam. Serving a little over 7 years at the age of 25, and just completing his eighth combat operation, Gunny claims he received his "blessing of blindness." Yes, on April 10, 1969, at 3:33 p.m., Levesque, with the second-hand on the "3" on his waterproof Timex watch, which he wore on his lapel, took a licking and his watch stopped ticking. He proclaimed, "There must be something above me as to why I'm still kicking."
During the course of his treatment for injuries received in combat, one doctor commented, "We have no answer for the shrapnel passing clean through your head and missing your brain." And Don's reply was, "I don't have a brain." It is this spiritual connection and sick humor that still supports Levesque's ongoing career of helping others to help themselves.
Before the Eye
In June of 1969, prior to Levesque's medical retirement, he was sent to the Veterans Administration's Northeast Blind Rehabilitation Center at West haven, Connecticut, on temporary assignment duty status. The core curriculum of the center had a four-pronged attack to the challenge of blindness: 1) mobility use– a long white cane, getting from point A to point B: 2) manual skills– use of tools to enhance hand-mind's eye coordination: 3) living skills– use of household appliances, cleaning devices to enhance independent living: 4) communication skills– use of tape recorder, Braille and other reading and writing devices. To Levesque's thinking about this core curriculum in his mind at that time, he accepted the belief of being able to get back into the Marine Corps with a profile restricted to night maneuvers. Thus, the birth of his new attitude toward the disability came alive with not at challenge or a situation; it was simply an opportunity and discoveryAll day/night patrol! This conviction to be faithful to his Marine hood was met with opposition by some rehabilitation specialists who tried to encourage him to drop the Marine idea and just become a veteran. Stoic at first to such a suggestion, the Gunny's internal dialog was working overtime. "Who the ____ are these civilians, telling me I'm not a Marine? You mean drop my principles of looking out for the welfare of the troops, via knowing myself and seeking self-improvement to the mission at hand? You mean drop the idea that I wasn't just a 20-year or a 30-year committed Marine with my highest aspiration of being the oldest active duty-enlisted Marine in the history of the Marine Corps?"
From a rehabilitation analogy, Levesque was at an all-time high in denying his blindness. It was at the peak, not even 3 months into his total blindness, that the following thoughts came to mind: "These poor governmental employees know not what they do. They not only have never walked in my shoes, they've never been a Marine. How can I get this message across?" It finally came to him on night in a sleepless sweat. It was a lesson he learned before his Marine Corps days from a former World War II Marine who worked back then as an ad man for his hometown newspaper. He told Levesque at about the age of 10 years old to remember one thing: A picture is worth a thousand words. The very next day he was being sent to a restoration clinic in New York City to have artificial eyes made. He badgered the eye maker to make a Marine Corps emblem eye, which is displayed in the poster. He then wore it during the rest of his rehabilitation, and his message was loud and clear: Once a Marine, always a Marine!
Beyond the Eye
In October of 1969, despite his unique and eccentric maverick approach to blind rehabilitation, Levesque also successfully completed his high school GED and used that alone to submit application to Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. During his college years (he graduated in 1974 with honors), along with future employment with the Veteran's Administration, Levesque kept his Marine emblem eye in a water container, preserving it for annual cameo appearances at Marine Corps birthday celebrations and private parties with Marine friends to inspire his friends to "stay Marine no matter what." He never had a clue as to how to bridge his "die-hard Marine spirit" to mainstream society until December 1987, after Levesque had spent more that 17 years helping blind veterans take their rightful place in the community no matter what their disability.
At that time the United States Department of Labor Veterans program in New York was looking for a blinded veteran to participate in a 100-mile marathon preceded by a skydive event to be held in Death Valley. A colleague said that is was too dangerous for a blind person to jump out of an airplane. Levesque took this statement personally. He thought "It's time to set the record straight. Its up to the individual as to what he or she feels they can and cannot do. I have never sky-dived before, nor have I ran even a 26-mile marathon; however, I accept the challenge." In February 1988, Levesque received national recognition when he successfully completed his second skydive with a standup landing, and completed his 100-mile marathon over the course of a week with 13 other Vietnam veterans. Today he still serves as a volunteer. He has consistently demonstrated "ability over disability," participating in 10K races, jumping with the Royal Thai Marine Recon Battalion in Sadahip, Thailand, and helping veterans with their VA claims and benefits.
Be the Eye
This means "ability over disability." Levesque says, "The more out-of-context experiences that we involve ourselves with, the more growth will occur. Determination, concentration, dedication, and patience I feel, override the poisons of our mind: being worried, doubt, pessimism, and procrastination. One trick that I found for myself is to go after something with at higher purpose that myself, for example, always the welfare of the troops via seeking self-improvement via to the mission at hand. This is the kind of kicking that no longer makes me wonder why I outlived my Timex ticking."
Behold the Eye
A few years ago Don joined forces with the USDOL VETS on the New York State Department of Labor to design and to produce an "I Want You to Hire a Disabled Veteran" poster. The poster reminds us of the sacrifices of our veterans and demonstrates to other severely disabled veterans that they don't have to spend their lives sitting in a rocker on the front porch. This poster is an absolute stopper and has put most all viewers in a state of awe, reminding them of the sacrifice that we made for their freedom, as well as giving disabled people a message of the hope of "ability over disability."