YUKON — Nearly 70 years after serving as a radio man in the Pacific for the U.S. Navy during World War II, Emory Finefrock is set to deliver another crucial message from one of his fellow veterans, only this time it’s going to the top.
Finefrock, of Yukon, is scheduled to relay a phone call Monday from a deaf veteran living in New York to the White House for a conversation with President Barack Obama. The call is part of an effort to promote a new program helping blind and deaf veterans.
Finefrock, 89, was diagnosed 15 years ago with macular degeneration, meaning he was slowly losing his eyesight as he aged. As his eyesight worsened to the point that he was legally blind, Finefrock began looking for ways to remain productive and continue helping others.
“I’m not going to sit back here and do nothing,” Finefrock said. “I had to find something society will let me do in my condition.”
He began taking computer lessons from a trainer at New View Oklahoma, formerly the League for the Blind. Workers there also got him in touch with Veterans Affairs.
John Laakman, director of the VA’s Visual Impairment Systems Team, helped Finefrock get a computer setup with equipment designed for those with severe eyesight problems.
As he became more familiar with the technology, he found a way to use it. The Veterans Workshop, a nonprofit that trains disabled veterans to be self-sufficient and work from home, was starting a new program meant to help both blind and deaf veterans.
Deaf people often use relay operators to help them make phone calls. Using a computer program combining phone and text chatting, the operators can speak words that are typed by a deaf caller and type out the responses from the person on the other end of the line.
‘I want to enjoy life’
Ken Smith, a spokesman for Veterans Workshop, said it made sense to train blind veterans to fill this role. Veterans looking for help wading through an often confusing bureaucratic system of benefits could lean on those who know their struggles.
The program also can serve as a way for blind veterans to make a living. Organizers are hopeful national sponsors will help fund the program.
Finefrock is one of the first people to be trained as a relay operator. Organizers think the program will take off among blind and deaf veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Emory has proved to us that an 89-year-old blind World War II veteran can be trained on this technology,” Smith said. “So we are convinced a 22-year-old blind veteran can also be trained on this technology.”
Finefrock said he just wants to help. He volunteers at an assisted living center and sees this work as another part of his mission to serve others.
“I want to enjoy life,” Finefrock said. “The only way you enjoy life is by helping other people.”