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Lew's Narrative

Lew Andrews is a Vietnam Veteran and a Peer Specialist in the Community Reintegration Program (CRP) at the Errera Community Care Center. He agreed to share his story of recovery from a disability—blindness—to inspire hope and confidence in other Veterans as they go through their own recovery processes.

Written by Christina Voonasis, Mental Health Outreach VISTA


As we sat down for the interview, I commented on Lew’s Southern accent. He chuckled: “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”

My eyes turned toward the brown leather cowboy boots Lew was wearing; I thought they went well with his accent. When I complimented the boots, Lew grinned and said, “I have ’em in black, too. All I need’s a ten-gallon hat!”

A vital component of Lew’s recovery, as he would later explain more fully, is his sense of humor. Living with a disability—blindness—has not cost him his ability to make others laugh. After all, as he says, “Just ’cause I don’t have vision doesn’t mean I can’t have a life, I can’t have fun.”

Lew grew up in a little town called Rocky Mount in North Carolina. He is one of 11 children, though two of his siblings died at birth. He is the second oldest of nine surviving progenies in a close-knit family. He was a rebellious teenager, hated school, but made it to his high school graduation in 1965 “by the skin of my teeth,” he says. A magnet for trouble, he remembers a lot of people thinking he’d be either dead or in jail by age 20.

After graduating from trade school as a heavy equipment operator in 1966, Lew was drafted into the Army in 1967. He was based at Fort Knox, 32nd Armored Division until he received orders for Vietnam the following year. For a short period after he was sent to Vietnam, he drove trucks up and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He was then assigned to the 1st Infantry, support division, a four-tank squad that provided security for anything from firefights to convoys to engineering projects.

“I got hurt one month before I was supposed to leave Vietnam. … The explosion took off the left side of my face and badly damaged my right eye.

“I got hurt one month before I was supposed to leave Vietnam. We weren’t even in a firefight. The base camp was behind us. In order to reach it, I had to maneuver the tank through a dried-out riverbed. I was the operator of the vehicle, and at one point, I had to exit the gully. As I reached the plateau, I hit a trip wire, and the explosion took off the left side of my face and badly damaged my right eye.” Lew became blind as a result.

“To me, it felt like hours, but they told me it was just a few minutes until the Medevac came and took me. When I reached the MASH unit, someone asked my name, and I answered ‘Lewis’ and that’s the last thing I remember for about a month.” The doctors had to put Lew in a medically-induced coma.

He was sent to Japan for two months, and during that time, he began to suffer symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. “One night, I was lying in bed and an earthquake hit. When the earthquake hit, my mind kind of went back to when I was in Vietnam, and I jumped up. They had to grab me and calm me down. That was my first experience with an earthquake.”

Lew returned to the U.S. in April 1969 and was at Walter Reed until the following July. An operation gave him partial vision in his right eye. After leaving the hospital, he says he traveled, partied, and “had a good time.” But his PTSD symptoms were still present. “Anything would set me off at that time.” 

The VA wanted him to come up to Connecticut for the Blind Center—“Back then, I didn’t know what a ‘Connecticut’ was!”

“When I first lost my sight, I thought my life was over with.”

Lew was 20 years old when he moved into his own apartment near the VA hospital in West Haven. His anger and self-pity about losing his vision followed him. “When I first lost my sight, I thought my life was over with. I was more a visual and hands-on person than anything else.”

In the late 1980s, Lew’s vision started getting even worse, so he went to the VA to get medical treatment. “But what happened was—you know how they have the interns, they rotate every so often? Well one of ’em would say, ‘Okay, we’re gonna do this to get back your vision,’ but by the time they got ready to do something, they’d rotate and another would come in, and they’d start from scratch again. I got tee’d off and took off myself to go to Walter Reed again.” 

He had glaucoma, and after an operation to relieve the pressure in his eyes, he was told that there was nothing more they could do for his vision. He would be totally blind for the rest of his life. Lew explained, “I went to my little pity party, I went through the little ‘why me?’ syndrome.” 

But life went on, and Lew started to manage his disability and the emotions he had surrounding the loss of his eyesight. In his late 40’s and early 50’s, he decided to go back to school, he says, “to mainly prove to myself that I could do it, and maybe, unconsciously, to show that what people thought of me in high school wasn’t true.” He went to Gateway Community College and earned his Associate degree in Social Work, and then transferred to Southern Connecticut State University and got a Bachelor’s in psychology with a minor in sociology. 

Lew came to the Errera Community Care Center as a psychology intern during this time. He was also volunteering, and he started two groups (H.O.P.E. [“How One Progresses Every Day”] and G.R.O.W. [“Getting Rid of Worry”]) that are still being offered at the Errera Center.

He remembers, “Laurie, Dr. Harkness, she kept asking me, ‘Do you want a job here?’

“I said, ‘I’m not ready to be tied to any time clock.’ And she answered, ‘Look, sit down. You come here every day, doing the same thing you’d be doing if you were working. Why not get paid for what you’re doing?’ A little light went off. ‘Yeah, you’re right!’” 

And so Lew became a Peer Specialist in 2006 as the Peer program was just getting started. In 2007, he was one of five people who went to Indianapolis to train and become Certified Peer Specialists (CPS).

He told me about his work. “One of the guidelines of being a Peer is that we use our disability to let the other Vets know that, with any disability or mental health problem, your life is not over with. Most of the Peers have a mental health or substance abuse problem. My problem is more of a physical one, but it’s also a mental problem, my blindness is a mental problem because I’ve had to readjust to not being able to see. It’s also a disability that people can see.

“When you’re living with any kind of problem, it’s hard to deal with, and the only person who can get you on track is you, yourself. Other people can give suggestions, but until you’re ready to make a change, nobody can do it for you.

“I will never, ever get used to being blind, but I have adjusted to being blind. I accept that I can’t see and I don’t put a whole lot of energy into not being able to see, I put my energy into having fun and enjoying myself. So, my blindness is a part of me, but it’s not all of me.”  

“I can either let my disability beat me up, and deprive me of a happy life, or I can take control of my condition and make the best of it. I will never, ever get used to being blind, but I have adjusted to being blind. I accept that I can’t see and I don’t put a whole lot of energy into not being able to see, I put my energy into having fun and enjoying myself. So, my blindness is a part of me, but it’s not all of me.

“It’s up to you to decide if you want to have a better lifestyle or if you just want to stay in a pity party, feeling sorry for yourself, expecting everyone else to do things for you. I try not to be too dependent on anybody. I realize I need help, but what I can do for myself, I do it.” 

He reflected on his struggles with PTSD. “When I used to suffer from PTSD, my family would come to visit me and I could feel them crying or sniffling, and what I used to do was to joke about my condition.

“With the Vietnam-era Veterans, we didn’t have any deprogramming. They just threw us back into life and said, ‘Now become a human being.’” 

“With the Vietnam-era Veterans, we didn’t have any deprogramming. They just threw us back into life and said, ‘Now become a human being.’ My deprogramming was me joking about my condition to try to help my family not feel so bad about it, and over the years, I cleansed all that stuff out of me, by joking about it, by laughing about it, by talking about it.

“With PTSD, I’m not saying you can just flip a switch and be better. But if you don’t talk about it, if you don’t get it out, it’s like a balloon. You can only pump so much air into the balloon before it explodes, and if you’re stressing over PTSD and not trying to work it out, eventually it’s going to come out in some way.

“It’s not an overnight thing, there’s no magic wand, no magic elixir, it’s what you’ve got on the inside that determines what kind of person you’re going to be. It’s not easy, it’s hard as hell to try to think positive at times. But it’s just like when you first started school. When you first started school, you didn’t know your ABC’s, you didn’t know your days of the week. You had to learn this stuff. And it didn’t happen overnight. To change your mindset takes time. But you gotta want to do it.

“Some things in life never become easy, but if you work on it, they can become easier"

“There’s a big difference between easy and easier. Some things in life never become easy, but if you work on it, they can become easier. Don’t get hung up on trying to make things easy, but just work on trying to make them easier.”

And with an attitude of humility, Lew concluded: “That’s basically how I got where I’m at. It wasn’t all me, it’s people around me that helped me get where I wanted to be.”


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