Women veterans are more likely to die by suicide than women who did not serve in the military, and, in a 2011 survey (the most recent survey of this kind), 46 percent of women veterans in California reported a current mental health problem. Los Angeles County, meanwhile, is home to approximately 20,600 women veterans, the fourth-highest population of any U.S. county.
Women Vets on Point (WVoP) has one goal: to connect women veterans in Los Angeles County with compassionate mental health care delivered by providers who understand their experiences and needs.
WVoP is led by women veterans, including Kristine Stanley, who served in the Air Force for 24 years. She recalls that she struggled in her first year after leaving the military and didn’t know where to turn for help.
“I want my fellow women veterans to know they are not alone,” said Stanley, program coordinator for WVoP at U.S.VETS. “I know they may feel invisible or forgotten, or that no one realizes they’ve served. That all changes with Women Vets on Point. If they have ever put on a uniform, this program is for them.”
Connect with a WVoP team member. Team members listen to women’s stories and help them find mental health care providers who have experience working with women veterans on challenges related to post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma, domestic violence, and more.
Get referrals for services that can assist with legal, employment, housing, and child-care needs.
Hear stories of hope and recovery from other women veterans.
Locate tools and resources to help them better understand their symptoms.
U.S. Marines assigned to the female engagement team (FET) attached to Foxtrot Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment conduct a security patrol in Marjah, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Jan. 3, 2011. The FET aids the infantry Marines by engaging Afghan women and children in support of the International Security Assistance Force.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Marionne T. Mangrum)
In creating WVoP, U.S.VETS partnered with Education Development Center (EDC), a nonprofit that advances innovative solutions to improve education and promote health. EDC was selected because of its experience in using technology tools to facilitate effective mental health treatment.
“There are very few programs tailored specifically for women who served,” said EDC project director, Erin Smith. “EDC’s research enables us to recommend solutions for some of the challenges women veterans may face. The bottom line is that earlier access to treatment can mean higher quality of life. And we know how to help women engage with treatment in ways that work with all of the other responsibilities they are carrying.”
U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Claire Ballante holds an Afghan child during a patrol with Marines from 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment in Musa Qa’leh, Afghanistan, Aug. 3, 2010. Ballante is part of a female engagement team that is patrolling local compounds to assess possible home damage caused by aircraft landing at Forward Operating Base Musa Qala.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Lindsay L. Sayres)
Many of the challenges faced by women veterans are distinct from those faced by male veterans or other women, and these challenges may be poorly understood by the public. According to Stanley, some people assume that women veterans can’t have experienced trauma if they didn’t serve in a traditional combat role. Another common misconception is that women veterans’ challenges are related only to military sexual trauma.
“Women Vets on Point knows what misconceptions are out there,” said Stanley. “And we know that the needs of women who served have not been sufficiently addressed. Women Vets on Point is going to make serious changes for women in this community and hopefully make the journeys of women veterans easier in the future.”
VA scientists are working to create a 3D-printed artificial lung that they tout as having the potential to revolutionize the treatment of Veterans affected by lung disease.
One such lung disorder—chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—is one of the most prevalent and costliest ailments in the Veteran population.
Dr. Joseph Potkay, a biomedical engineer at the VA Ann Arbor Health Care System in Michigan, is leading the VA-funded research. It calls for making a prototype of the 3D-printed artificial lung. Potkay and his team hope to build what they call the first wearable artificial lung that is compatible with living tissue and is capable of short- and long-term respiratory support.
The lung is seen initially as a temporary measure, a bridge to help patients awaiting a lung transplant or an aid for those whose lungs are healing. Future versions could have longer-term applications, the researchers say.
Potkay says this is the first time high-resolution 3D polymer printing is being used to create microfluidic lungs with three-dimensional blood flow networks.
Potkay’s artificial lung model relies on microfabrication to achieve highly efficient gas exchange and blood paths similar to those in a human lung.
(Photo by Brian Hayes)
Microfluidic artificial lungs, a new class of artificial lungs, mimic the structure of the natural lung better than conventional artificial lungs. Tiny blood channels, some thinner than a human hair, are closer in shape and dimension to those in a person, allowing for blood flow similar to that in the human body.
The biocompatible coatings on the lung’s surface are equally important. Anytime blood comes in contact with an artificial surface, an immune response leads to hardening of the blood and clotting. Biocompatible coatings will help curtail that immune reaction.
“We hope that these microfluidic flow paths and biocompatible coatings will be more compatible with living tissue, thereby reducing the body’s immune response and increasing the lifetime of the device,” says Potkay, who is also a researcher at the University of Michigan. “The flexibility in design afforded by 3D printing gives us more freedom and thus the ease to build artificial lungs with a small size and pressure drops that are compatible for operation with the body’s natural pressures.”
To read the full article, click here to visit VA Research Currents.
Featured image: Biomedical engineer Dr. Joseph Potkay, with the VA Ann Arbor Health Care System, displays a 2D prototype of an artificial lung. A 3D version is in production.
Russia claims to have developed new tank attack strategies to baffle and destroy modern adversaries while counteracting dangers, according to RIA Novosti, a Russian news agency.
With the advent of suicide cars, IEDs and anti-tank missile systems, Russian T-72 tank crews have implemented new strategies, such as “tank carousels,” “tank trousers” and “Syrian shaft,” according to Defence Blog, which cited the RIA article.
Tank carousels involve several platforms rotating in a circle and firing like a revolver.
“It allows us to fire over an unlimited time period,” Captain Roman Schegolev told RIA, according to Sputnik. “There can be three, six, nine or more machines. They move uninterrupted in a circular motion, one pummeling the enemy, the other moving to the rear and reloading, the third preparing to enter firing position, and so on. Non-stop shooting; just make sure to feed the shells.”
Unlike Abrams tanks, T-72s have automatic loaders which allows for the maneuver, Schegolev added.
“On the other side they will break down and open return fire, revealing their armament,” Schegolev said. “Then our disguised sniper tanks with specially trained crews step into action. They quickly and efficiently strike the identified targets.”
(Russian Defense Ministry)
This strategy was especially successful in Syria, where T-72s were able to fire atop and then hide behind embankments. It can even be used when the tank crews don’t know with what the enemy is armed, Defence Blog reported, citing RIA.
The tank trousers tactic, on the other hand, involves tanks rotating between trenches, staying in each trench for no more than a few seconds.
“The tank enters the trench, fires, kicks into reverse and moves to the next. Enemy anti-tank weapons don’t have time to react,” Sputnik reported.
The third tactic, Syrian shaft, involves tanks hiding behind parapets and shooting through holes in the wall before scooting away, which is effective against ATGM and IED attacks, according to Jane’s 360.
“What’s interesting here isn’t the tactics themselves, but rather that Russia is trumpeting them as innovative,” Peck wrote.
“Rotating tanks in and out of the firing line, rapid fire shooting and switching between alternate firing positions have been standard practice since World War II (the Russians would have learned this the hard way at the hands of the Germans),” Peck wrote. “These are tactics that American, British, Israeli and other tank crews would be familiar with.”
“Tanks may differ between nations,” Peck wrote. “But often tactics are the same.”
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
Everyone has a different way of passing the time during deployments. Some people work their way through seasons on Netflix, some CrossFit their way to a better physique, while others pursue academic goals. For Green Beret Nate Boyer, it was watching YouTube videos and practicing those skills that helped him chase his dream of becoming a professional football player.
In Sunday’s Super Bowl commercial, we see the journey of Nate Boyer. Following his service in the Army, Boyer wanted to go to college and to be a starter on the Texas Longhorns football team.
There was only one tiny wrench in his plan: he had never played football.
Boyer was told he was “too small, too slow, too old. Nobody wants a 30-year-old rookie on their team.” But just ask Boyer: he’s no ordinary rookie. Following tryouts, Boyer learned that there would be a starting position open as a long snapper for the Longhorns.
“I didn’t even know what a long snapper was,” he said.
Boyer learned and honed the skills through YouTube and watched as his dreams came true:
Army Capt. James E. Miller, one of the first aviators in the U.S. military and the first U.S. aviation casualty in World War I, has been named recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross nearly 100 years after his heroic actions over France in 1918.
On the 242nd birthday of the Army, during a twilight tattoo ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia, Acting Secretary of the Army Robert M. Speer presented the Distinguished Flying Cross to Miller’s great-grandson, Byron Derringer.
“We’re very proud today to have some of the descendants from James Miller’s family here and able to represent him and a lineage of what he achieved on those battlefields as the first individual who gave his life in that war in aviation,” Speer said.
The presentation of the cross to a World War I soldier is significant, given that the theme for this year’s Army birthday is, “Over There! A Celebration of the World War I Soldier.”
America Enters World War I
The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. On Dec. 7, 1917, the U.S. declared war on Austria-Hungary, Germany’s ally.
“This is the 100th anniversary of [America’s entry into] World War I,” Speer said. “And it’s the 242nd birthday of our Army. But 100 years ago, there were significant changes in terms of the character of war. You had at that time, for the first time, the Army going off to war in foreign lands with our allies, fighting side-by-side with our allies, and representing the United States — which placed the United States into a significant leadership role in the world.”
Speer said several aspects of warfare changed during World War I, including the development of armor units and precision artillery. One of the most significant developments, however, was that the U.S. military had “aviation for the first time as part of the U.S. Army Air Corps,” he said.
“We have a privilege today to be able to recognize not only the heraldry of our total 242 years but also that point and time, where we recognize, late, a Distinguished Flying Cross for an American hero,” Speer said.
As part of a twilight tattoo event at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., held on honor of the Army’s 242nd birthday, Acting Secretary of the Army Robert Speer, left, and Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, right, present a posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross for Army Capt. James E. Miller to Miller’s great-grandson, Byron Derringer, center, June 14, 2017.
Early 20th Century Aviation Warfare
As a soldier in World War I, Miller was one of the first to make use of new aviation technology. The captain took command of the 95th Pursuit Squadron on Feb. 10, 1918 — just 10 months after the United States declared war on Germany. The men in the squadron were the first American-trained pilots to fight in the war.
On March 9 of that year, Miller, Maj. M. F. Harmon and Maj. Davenport Johnson began the first combat patrol ever for the U.S. Army Air Services. They flew 180-horsepower, French-built SPAD XIII aircraft. The aircraft, a biplane, is named for its developer, the Société Pour L’Aviation et ses Dérivés.
Harmon’s plane experienced trouble early in the sortie, and so he was unable to continue on the patrol. But Miller and Johnson pressed on together and crossed into enemy territory. There, they fought off two German aircraft, but soon met more. It was then that Johnson’s aircraft experienced trouble with the machine guns.
Miller Fights On
According to the DFC citation, Johnson was forced to leave Miller to continue the fight against German aviators on his own.
“Miller continued to attack the two German biplanes, fearlessly exposing himself to the enemy, until his own aircraft was severely damaged and downed behind the German lines, where he succumbed to his injuries,” the citation reads. “Miller’s actions are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the United States Army Air Services and the American Expeditionary Forces.”
Afterward, Derringer said of both the recognition and the twilight tattoo that accompanied the recognition, “it’s spectacular, I know that the family, everybody, is just honored to be here.”
San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS John P. Murtha (LPD 26) is underway to conduct Underway Recovery Test (URT) 7 in conjunction with NASA off the coast of Southern California.
URT is part of a U.S. government interagency effort to safely practice and evaluate recovery processes, procedures, hardware, and personnel in an open ocean environment that will be used to recover the Orion spacecraft upon its return to Earth.
This will be the first time John P. Murtha will conduct a URT mission with NASA. Throughout the history of the program, a variety of San Antonio-class LPD ships have been utilized to train and prepare NASA and the Navy, utilizing a Boiler Plate Test Article (BTA). The BTA is a mock capsule, designed to roughly the same size, shape, and center of gravity as the Crew Module which will be used for Orion.
NASA and Navy teams have taken lessons learned from previous recovery tests to improve operations and ensure the ability to safely and successfully recover the Orion capsule when it returns to Earth following Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) in December 2019.
San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS John P. Murtha arrives to its new homeport Naval Base San Diego.
(U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Lucas T. Hans)
EM-1 will be an uncrewed flight, whose successful completion hopes to pave the way for future crewed missions and enable future missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
During URT-7, John P. Murtha will conduct restricted maneuvering operations. Small boats carrying Navy and NASA divers will deploy alongside the BTA to rig tending lines, guiding the capsule to Anchorage as the ship safely operates on station.
Conducting both daytime and nighttime recovery operations, NASA crew members will work alongside the Navy to manage how the capsule is brought in, set down and safely stored.
NASA plans to conduct two more URT missions before EM-1 takes place.
John P. Murtha is homeported in San Diego and is part of Naval Surface Forces and U.S. 3rd Fleet.
Commander, U.S. Third Fleet leads naval forces in the Pacific and provides realistic, relevant training necessary for an effective global Navy. They coordinate with Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet to plan and execute missions based on their complementary strengths to promote ongoing peace, security, and stability.
This article originally appeared on DVIDS. Follow @DVIDSHub on Twitter.
The fate of two Turkish soldiers now hangs in the balance as they have become the unwilling guests of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIS).
Supporters of the terrorist group have reportedly been debating what to do with the captured soldiers.
According to a report by al Jazeera, the two Turkish troops were captured during a battle near the Syrian village of Elbab. The announcement from the terrorist group about the captives caused a celebration on Facebook and other social media sites.
The celebration then turned to into a debate when one ISIS dirtbag solicited opinions on what to do with the prisoners.
“Expect a nifty video with the soldiers of the tyrant infidel Erdogan,” one ISIS supporter tweeted, adding two knife emojis. ISIS has routinely beheaded some of its captives, including American journalist James Foley. “Jihadi John,” the ISIS jihadist who was responsible for the terrorist group’s most notorious beheadings, became a good jihadist in Nov. 2015.
Others advocated not beheading them, but treating them humanely and educating them about Islam, with one saying, “it would only give the members a momentary boost of adrenaline but not much more.”
Most followers of jihadists, though, were calling for the summary execution of the Turkish troops, whom they deemed “nonbelievers.” One of the senior terrorists claimed, “All the options are on the table for the Islamic State organization to decide what to do with the two Turkish soldiers.”
The terrorist group burned a captured Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot alive in February 2015 after his F-16 crashed due to a mechanical failure.
But a new study of the victims of these mysterious phenomena suggests a new, disconcerting possibility: Some unknown force projected in the direction of the patients could have somehow injured their brains.
“The unique circumstances of these patients and the consistency of the clinical manifestations raised concern for a novel mechanism of a possible acquired brain injury from a directional exposure of undetermined etiology,” the study’s authors wrote.
The saga began in late 2016 when American diplomatic staff (and some Canadians) that had been in Cuba began to report odd physical and mental symptoms. Some could no longer remember words, while others had hearing loss, speech problems, balance issues, nervous-system damage, headaches, ringing in the ears, and nausea.
Some even showed signs of brain swelling or concussions — mild traumatic brain injuries.
Many of the victims remember strange occurrences before the symptoms appeared, though others didn’t hear or feel anything. One diplomat reported a “blaring, grinding noise” that woke him from his bed in a Havana hotel, according to the Associated Press. The AP also reported that some heard a “loud ringing or a high-pitch chirping similar to crickets or cicadas” in short bursts at night, while others said they could walk “in” and “out” of blaring noises that were audible only in certain spots.
The US State Department eventually determined that the incidents were “specific attacks” and moved to cut its Cuban embassy staff by 60%.
But despite that determination, no one understands those “specific attacks” or is even sure they’re responsible for everything that’s happened. According to ProPublica, the FBI hasn’t even been able to rule out the possibility that some of the patients were never attacked in the first place.
Studying the victims
Most of the victims were first examined in Miami, but a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair were selected to help further evaluate and treat at least 21 patients, whose cases are described in the new study.
By studying those 11 women and 10 men, the researchers were able to establish a significant amount of common ground among the patients. More than 80% reported hearing a sound that had a “directional” source — it seemed to come from somewhere. After three months, 81% still had cognitive issues, 71% had balance problems, 86% had vision issues, and about 70% still reported hearing problems and headaches.
The fact that a number of these symptoms could be subjective has raised questions about the possibility that this group of people is suffering from some sort of collective delusion, according to the study authors. But they say that mass delusion is unlikely, since affected individuals were all highly motivated and of a broad age distribution, factors that don’t normally correspond with mass psychogenic illness. Plus, objective tests of ears and eye motion all revealed real clinical abnormalities.
All these symptoms seem consistent with some form of mild brain trauma, according to the researchers. But these symptoms persisted far longer than most concussion symptoms do, and were not associated with blunt head trauma.
“These individuals appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma,” the study authors wrote.
Mysterious weapons — or something else?
Despite having identified common symptoms and clinical evidence of some sort of injury, researchers are still at a loss about the cause.
If there is some kind of weapon involved, no one knows what kind it was or who would have used it. The Cuban government has denied any connection and investigators haven’t found any link to Russia, which intelligence analysts had speculated might have the means and motivation to carry out an attack.
The reported presence of strange audio and of the feeling of changes in air pressure have led to speculation about some kind of sonic or audio-based weapon. But even though sonic weapons exist, they’re very visible and easy to avoid, according to Seth Horowitz, a neuroscientist who wrote the book “The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind. Plus, the specific symptoms make that unlikely.
“There isn’t an acoustic phenomenon in the world that would cause those type of symptoms,” said Horowitz.
He speculated that perhaps some sort of mysterious pathogen or other phenomenon could have caused the symptoms, but the authors of the new study report that no signs infection (like fever) were identified. They determined it was unlikely a chemical agent would have caused these effects without damaging other organs.
In an editorial published alongside the new study, two doctors wrote that without more information and more data on the patients before they reported feeling ill, we can’t be certain what went wrong.
“At this point, a unifying explanation for the symptoms experienced by the US government officials described in this case series remains elusive and the effect of possible exposure to audible phenomena is unclear,” the editorial’s authors wrote. “Going forward, it would be helpful for government employees traveling to Cuba to undergo baseline testing prior to deployment to allow for a more informed interpretation of abnormalities that might later be detected after a potential exposure.”
And in 2016, the Kuznetsov cruised through the English channel belching black smoke on its way to the Mediterranean.
This series of accidents and problems leads to one inevitable conclusion: The Russian Navy has a maintenance problem.
Bryan Clark, senior fellow for the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Studies, said that when it comes to maintenance, “You can’t live on older ships. After 20 to 25 years, all you have is what’s left on the shelf.”
The Admiral Kuznetsov.
Though many of the incidents plagued their submarine force, even more telling than its history of catastrophes is the routine reliance on oceangoing tugs, which accompany its surface vessels on every deployment.
On Oct. 22, 2018, two Russian corvettes, a tanker, and a tug set sail for the North Atlantic.
Experts say Russia’s dependence on tugs is an indication of an aging, insufficient surface fleet.
While Russia can boast impressive littoral capabilities, for blue-water operations it leans heavily on its Cold War-era platforms, an influential naval expert said.
This is problematic for several reasons, according to Clark. Maintenance becomes more difficult as ships age, and as decades pass their parts become harder, if not impossible, to obtain. It is impossible, then, to manage the eventual breakdown of equipment, which results in a loss of redundancy for crucial systems.
This redundancy — secondary, tertiary and even quaternary systems — is what keeps ships afloat and ready to fight.
For the Russian Navy, the idea of tug as escort has become standard. For the rest of the world, Clark thinks there is a lesson to be learned.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
For those who haven’t seen “Range 15” (it’s for sale as a digital download at Amazon.com), it’s about some military buddies who have a wild party and find themselves tossed into the drunk tank. They wake up to the realization that the zombie apocalypse is in full swing.
Think of what follows as a threesome between “Team America,” “Zombieland,” and “The Hangover.”
According to a report by the Military Times, the documentary made its debut on June 30, 2017. The video, dubbed Not a War Story, details the making of the movie, which was filmed in 13 days — a balls crazy pace. The 80 vets who made the film, some of them amputees, had very little (if any) experience shooting feature films, but they didn’t let that stop them.
In the trailer, William Shatner, who plays an attorney in the film, strikes a very poignant tone as he recognizes the sacrifices many of these veterans have made. “You’re the fellows who altered your life to do the job,” he says.
Oh, and good news for Range 15 fans: Military Times mentioned that a sequel is reportedly in the works.
The US military has enlisted academics to fight a new enemy: Twitter bots.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held a special contest last year to identify so-called “influence bots” — “realistic, automated identities that illicitly shape discussion on sites like Twitter and Facebook.”
The paper minces no words about how dangerous it is that human-like bots on social media can accelerate recruitment to organizations like ISIS, or grant governments the ability to spread misinformation to their people. Proven uses of influence bots in the wild are rare, the paper notes, but the threat is real.
And so, the surprisingly simple test. DARPA placed “39 pro-vaccination influence bots” onto a fake, Twitter-like social network. Importantly, competing teams didn’t know how many influence bots there were in total.
Teams from the University of Southern California, Indiana University, Georgia Tech, Sentimetrix, IBM, and Boston Fusion worked over the four weeks to find them all.
With 8.5% of all Twitter users being bots, per the company’s own metrics, it’s important to weed out those bots who go beyond just trying to sell you weight-loss plans and work-at-home methods, and cross the line into politics.
But actually making that distinction can be a challenge, as the paper notes.
Sentimetrix technically won the challenge, reporting 39 correct guesses and one false positive, a full six days before the end of the four-week contest period. But USC was the most accurate, going 39 for 39.
How to detect a robot
DARPA combined all the teams’ various approaches into a complicated 3-step process, all of which will need improved software support to get better and faster going forward:
Initial bot detection — You can detect who’s a bot and who’s not by using language analysis to see who’s using statistically unnatural and bot-generated words and phrases. Using multiple hashtags in a post can also be a flag. Also, if you post to Twitter a lot, and consistently over the span of a 24-hour day, the chances you’re a bot go up.
Clustering, outliers, and network analysis: That first step may only identify a few bots. But bots tend to follow bots, so you can use your initial findings to network out and get a good statistical sense of robot social circles.
Classification/Outlier analysis: The more positives you find with the first two steps, the easier it is to extrapolate out and find the rest in a bunch.
A key finding from the DARPA paper, and very important to note, is that all of this required human interaction — computers just can’t tell a real human from an influence bot, at least not yet.
The good news, say the authors in their paper, is that these methods can also be used to find human-run propaganda and misinformation campaigns.
The bad news is that you can expect a lot more evil propaganda bots on Twitter in the years to come.
“Bot developers are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Over the next few years, we can expect a proliferation of social media influence bots as advertisers, criminals, politicians, nation states, terrorists, and others try to influence populations,” says the paper.
On December 21, the two largest planets in our solar system will align more perfectly in the night sky than they have since 1623. No one saw that alignment thanks to the glare of the sun, so if you catch a glimpse of it this year you’ll actually be seeing something no person has beheld since March 4, 1226, nearly eight centuries ago.
This kind of alignment is known as a conjunction, and when it’s Saturn and Jupiter that appear to cross paths in the night sky. It’s known as the Great Conjunction.
Saturn and Jupiter are the slowest and second slowest moving planets in the solar system respectively, which means the Great Conjunction is the rarest of the bright-planet conjunctions. Every year, Saturn moves 12 degrees around the Sun while Jupiter makes it about 30 degrees. That means Jupiter makes up about 18 degrees each year — and that it takes 20 years for its orbit to catch up to Saturn’s — which is why there’s a Great Conjunction every 20 years.
This year’s conjunction, which happens to fall on the Winter Solstice, is remarkable because of just how close they will come. The two planets will be just 0.1 degrees apart, about one-fifth of the full moon’s diameter, at their closest. For us on Earth, it might look like they’re literally on top of each other.
To catch a glimpse of the so-called Double Planet yourself, you’ll need to point a telescope toward the southwestern sky at twilight. The planets will be low on the horizon, which isn’t ideal for viewing, but you should still be able to see it barring any clouds. Those living nearer the equator will have better views, as the planets will be higher in the night sky from their vantage point.
The next Great Conjunction will happen on Halloween of 2040, but the next time the two planets will appear this close will be March 15, 2080. So, it really might be your only chance — unless you plan on kicking it for another 60 years.
The moment Otto Catalan had waited almost two decades for had finally arrived. Sitting in a small office, surrounded by his doctors and other medical staff, the blind U.S. Navy Veteran could only hope for one thing: to see the face of his teenage son for the first time.
“I see a lot of flashes, and they’re getting brighter,” he said. “Wow. It’s amazing.”
He turned his head to the right and saw bright flashes of light reflecting off the white coat of Miami VA Chief of Ophthalmology Dr. Ninel Gregori. When he turned to the left to talk with his son, he paused and began to cry. Gregori hugged him.
“Thank you very much, guys,” he said. “I’ll work hard, so I can see. It’s been 19 years, and I have been able to see my son. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
Catalan is keeping true to his word and continuing to work hard to learn how to use his new Argus® II prosthesis or “bionic eye.” Even though he struggled for years to come to terms with the loss of his sight, Catalan now feels optimistic about moving forward and beginning a new life.
“I’m learning something new everyday,” he said. “This prosthetic will help me be more successful in life. It’s already helping me be more mobile at home, and it’s going to make a big difference for me at work.”
Catalan’s struggles with vision loss began in 1989, when he was serving as a ship serviceman in the U.S. Navy. While he was on guard duty aboard a ship in the middle of the Persian Gulf, everything suddenly went dark.
“It felt like I was walking in the dark,” he said. “I told my superior officer, and he sent me to a doctor, but they couldn’t find out what it was. We went back to Virginia. They did extensive tests, and that’s when they found out I had retinitis pigmentosa.”
Catalan was scared when he heard the diagnosis. He never heard of retinitis pigmentosa and didn’t know what it would mean for his future. He was immediately removed from the ship and sent to rehab, and would eventually be medically separated from the military.
What is retinitis pigmentosa?
“Retinitis pigmentosa is one of the most common inherited diseases we see in ophthalmology,” Gregori said. “For people with this condition and certainly in Mr. Catalan’s case, the retina becomes very thin, and the photoreceptors, which convert light into electrical signals, gradually die off over time. Initially, peripheral vision, or the side vision, goes away, and then finally the central vision disappears.”
Catalan’s eyesight continued to deteriorate. Still needing to make money, he took a job as a cook. As his conditioned worsened, he struggled to tell if food was cooked and even burned himself multiple times. It was at this point that Catalan knew he needed help, so he went to the Northport VA Medical Center in New York.
“My doctors told me I needed to start preparing because I was going to be permanently blind soon,” he said. “After I heard that, I remember crying all the time. I couldn’t even hear someone say the word ‘see’ because I would burst into tears.”
The Northport VAMC referred Catalan to the VA Connecticut Healthcare System to participate in its Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Service’s three-month training program. While sitting through the training sessions and listening to the instructors and other Veterans, Catalan unexpectedly learned a valuable life lesson.
“Once I met other blind Vietnam Veterans at VA Connecticut and saw how well they were dealing with their situation, I never cried about my own condition again,” he said.
Throughout the program, he also learned to perform everyday tasks, such as shave his face, eat with utensils, identify clothing and walk with a cane. He stayed an additional two months to learn to use a computer and screen-reader technology.
Moving to Florida
In 2005, Catalan heard about ophthalmology research being conducted at the Miami VA Healthcare System and the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, which serves as the ophthalmology department of the University of Miami Health System. He moved his family to Cutler Bay, Florida and transferred his care to the then Miami VA Medical Center—where he worked with Roberta Goldstein, now retired Miami VA visual impairment services team coordinator.
“Roberta was great,” he said. “She referred me to the prosthetics department at the West Palm Beach VAMC, so I could get equipment to help me go back to work. She’s the best.”
Shortly after receiving his prosthetics equipment, Catalan landed a job as a resource specialist with Marriott Hotels—where he still works today. He says Marriott has been accommodating to his condition, and he hopes to be considered for promotion one day.
In March 2015, he received a phone call that would help his chances of getting that long-awaited promotion and also change his life.
One of my hopes was to see my son’s face for the first time
When he heard about the “bionic eye,” Catalan requested an evaluation for the device at the Miami VA Eye Clinic. With the help of the low vision Miami VA team, Gregori selected him for the Argus II® screening evaluation and personally called his home to ask if he was still interested.
“He was a perfect candidate,” Gregori said. “His personality was extremely important. With artificial vision, the patient must have the patience to learn to interpret the lights and images he or she is seeing. Learning to use the Argus II is like learning a new language, so individuals with both an optimistic personality and a strong willingness to work hard are the best candidates for the technology.”
Dr. Gregori is the Miami VA chief of ophthalmology and an associate professor of clinical ophthalmology at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute. In 2004, she was part of the surgical team that implanted the first Argus II® retinal prosthesis in a Florida patient, a non-Veteran from Tampa. She was eager to bring the new technology to the Miami VA, where she proudly serves South Florida Veterans and has lead the ophthalmology department for the past 10 years.
“Miami VA Medical Center Director Paul Russo and Chief of Surgery Dr. Seth Spector both enthusiastically welcomed the idea of making the bionic eye available to our Veterans. It would not have been possible without their support,” Gregori said.
It felt like I had just given somebody the best Christmas present
Catalan underwent surgery to implant the Argus® II, a new prosthesis approved in 2013 by the Food and Drug Administration to treat people with end-stages of retinitis pigmentosa, at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute on Nov. 24, 2015. Catalan’s bionic eye was activated Dec. 11 by the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute’s biomedical engineers, under the supervision of Miami VA’s Dr. Ninel Gregori. Even though Gregori and her team had already been through the experience of turning on the prosthesis with a previous patient, Catalan’s moment was emotional nonetheless.
“When it was turned on, Mr. Catalan started crying, and it brought tears to my eyes,” Gregori said. “It felt like I just gave somebody the best Christmas present I had ever given to anybody in my life. That’s why I went into ophthalmology.”
“After 19 years, the first thing I saw was my son’s face,” Catalan said. “I could also see Dr. Gregori, and when we walked around the hall, I was able to tell where the door and window frames were for the first time. That might not mean a lot to other people, but it meant so much to me.”
Catalan continues to work with the Miami VA Blind Rehabilitation Team, lead by optometrist Dr. Kasey Zann, to learn how to use the Argus II® in his everyday life. Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialist Linh Pham visits his home and trains him to use the device in his home environment and in public. He also works regularly with Gregori and her team at the Miami VA Eye Clinic.
“The Miami VA Healthcare System has amazing low vision and blind rehabilitation resources for Veterans. It is an ideal setting for rehabilitation after Argus II implantation,” Gregori said.
At home, Catalan now sees objects and walls, and can even see lights and motion on his television for the first time. His next goal is to learn to use his new computer at work. After his training, he will be able to see shapes, the different windows and letters on his computer screen.
During an outing with his family in early 2015, Catalan was surprised to see a sight he had not seen in years.
“On New Year’s Eve, I was able to see the fireworks outside for the first time in 19 years. My mouth stayed open for a while,” he said. “Now, when I’m walking on the grass, I can see the lines where the grass is versus where the sidewalk is. The fact that I’m walking outside and can see the lights makes it all worth it.”
About the Argus® II Retinal Prosthesis System
The Argus® II Retinal Prosthesis System—made by Second Sight Medical Products, Inc.—is an artificial retina, or bionic eye, that converts images into light and uses a miniature video camera that is mounted on a pair of glasses, said Gregori. Once the images are converted, they are wirelessly transmitted to a surgically implanted prosthesis located in the patient’s eye. The implant then stimulates the retina to produce an image that is sent to the brain for interpretation.