Military training helps student veteran navigate disability

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Arizona State University student Don Knowles is his own beacon of light.

The 58-year-old Marine Corps veteran is hopeful and optimistic about his future.

He also lives in darkness.

He lost his sight five years ago but has used the lessons he learned in the military to start a whole new life. So far, he has succeeded. As a returning student, Knowles has made his mark in the classroom and on ASU’s West campus, where he is pursuing a communication degree and serves as a mentor to others.

“I have opportunities I’ve never had before,” Knowles said. “I have met all kinds of new people and have set goals for myself that I would have never done otherwise. I have a couple of job offers waiting for me when I graduate. I feel very comfortable with my life.”

In honor of Salute to Service Week, ASU Now spoke to Knowles about his military service, his extraordinary life and what his future holds.

Question: Why did you join the military?

Answer: I joined the military because I have roots there. My grandfather was in the Army for 20 years. My father did not join the military and I felt compelled to do so at a young age. I joined the Marine Corps when I was 17.

Q: What did you enjoy most about being in the service?

A: The organization of the system. I enjoyed the routine, which I did not have in my childhood. My childhood was very disruptive. I liked the structure and the opportunity to advance through the ranks through my hard work.

Q: What lessons did you learn in the military that you apply in your daily life?

A: I think the greatest lesson I took away from the Marines was — if you get knocked down, get yourself up as soon as you can and move forward so as to not drag everyone around you down. I’ve applied that to my life, especially my situation with me becoming blind. I’ve applied it in the sense that I know I have a responsibility to myself and others to do the best I can. Get up, move forward and do it with a smile.

Q: How did you lose your sight?

A: I was a project manager in commercial construction and had an appendix attack at work. I made it through that day and the next, but by the third day it was obvious that I was in serious trouble. So I went to the hospital and a very young surgeon performed an emergency appendectomy on me. He accidentally cut an artery and I bled out on the table. The trauma team was called and I used up 27 units of unoxygenated blood. It swelled up my nerve bundles and once the swelling went down, they just dissolved and it left me totally blind. I woke up in the ICU and on full life support.

I had been severely injured before, and I came through it OK, so when I was experiencing blindness, I thought it was going to be temporary and thought it would pass. But as the months went by and the more doctors I saw, it became obvious the blindness was permanent. I made a conscious choice to get up off the floor and move forward with my life and accept my fate. I will spend the rest of my life in the dark without seeing anyone smile at me, the trees or a sunset, all things I had taken for granted before, and it’s gone. But instead of being depressed and sad about it, I turned that energy into learning all I can, learning about myself and other people, and it has been an amazing transition. I do feel very optimistic about the future.

Q: How do you like being a college student? What has that transition been like for you?

A: I enjoy the learning aspects of college and the experiences. It has been somewhat of a difficult journey in the sense that as a totally blind student, more often than not I’m the first blind person anyone here has encountered in their life. With that comes a responsibility on my behalf to represent myself in a courteous and respectful manner so that the next blind person they encounter, they can refer back to the experience with me and say, ‘I’ve already met one of these people and they’re OK.’” I make an effort to communicate well with people, be honest with them and be myself. It’s taken me a long way.

Q: What is your goal after you receive your degree?

A: My goal when I receive my degree at Arizona State University is I will continue toward my master’s degree at Western Michigan. It’s a 14-month focused master’s program for blind rehabilitation therapy and I plan to apply as a counselor and a technology instructor for the Veterans Administration Hospital. I have a solid standing job offer with them as well as several blind schools, who also need qualified instructors.

Top photo: Communication student Don Knowles listens to his instructor in a Sept. 21 class for ASU students who have recently transferred from community college at the West campus. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

In celebration of Veterans Day, Arizona State University proudly honors veterans and active members of the military through Salute to Service. Your support helps veterans succeed. Text ASUVets to 41444 to donate to the Veterans Education Fund or visit veterans.asu.edu to learn how you can honor a veteran.