James Nealey figured he had everything wired. He was a skilled military electrician working on US Army helicopters and their complex avionics and weapons systems. He was an enlisted man with one combat tour under his belt and another scheduled, and he was putting together his Warrant Officer application packet. He was happily married to a beautiful German girl with hopes of making a family. His plan entailed 20 years in the Army, retirement, then a great job doing the same kind of work in the civilian world.
Then three years ago, in just a few months, it all came crashing down. He lost his vision. He lost his job and most of his friends. He even lost his wife.
James, now 28, was stationed in Germany after serving in Iraq when he noticed he was starting to lose vision in his left eye. Several doctors and months later he was finally diagnosed with Leber's Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. He was telling his story recently at GDB's Oregon Campus. He was there to get his first Guide Dog, a yellow Lab named Silver. "It was a tough time. Except for my closest friends, who had seen me run into things, nobody believed me when I said I was losing my vision." And when they finally did, he was given a medical discharge.
"I went through six or seven months of depression," he said, shaking his head at the memory. "But then I decided I needed to get off the couch and make something out of my life."
The Veteran's Administration sent him to the Blind Veterans Rehabilitation Center in Palo Alto, Calif., where he learned orientation and mobility, living skills, computer skills and the like. And then he heard about the Wyakin Warriors Foundation back in his home state of Idaho. "They help disabled vets go to college," he said. "It's a great organization. I'm not the academic type at all but with their help I finished my first semester with a 3.8 grade point average." As he said that, he couldn't stop a huge smile from spreading across his face. He hopes to eventually earn an MBA and own his own business.
At a disabled veterans convention James met a few guys with guide dogs. "They told me how much more independence you can have, how liberating it is. It's an amazing feeling, traveling with a dog compared to a cane. And it's so much more social. Most people don't even want to approach you when you are traveling with a cane. Now people come up to me, want to meet Silver, say hi to him, ask me questions. There is no comparison."
At six foot, five inches tall, James frequently gets smacked in the head by tree branches but with Silver leading the way, that problem has gone away. "He leads me in and out of crowded sidewalks, around trees and other things. He's amazing. At first it was hard to learn to trust him. I have two Newfoundland dog s at home and I love them but I wouldn't trust them with anything. Silver, on the other hand, is great. It's only been a week and a half and already I know I can depend on him. He's just not going to let me run into something.
"And he's got a great personality. They did a perfect job of matching us up. He walks as fast as I do. He wants to be playful when I do. He's very quick to learn and respond to any command I give him."
So his new plan is to spend the next year and a half at the College of Western Idaho, then transfer to Boise State and eventually enroll in the MBA program there. The Wyakin Warriors Foundation promises tuition, books, room and board and plenty of encouragement with local and national mentors, as well as volunteer students at the school who help out if he needs it.
And what about that German wife? "She said she couldn't live with someone with a disability," he explained. "But that may not be the whole truth. I found out later she married my best friend." No matter. He said his new girlfriend, Jill, who worked at PetSmart and first fell in love with his dogs, is great. "She can't wait to meet Silver. And I can't wait to get him home and get on with my life."