EBAA is fortunate to have many Veterans working throughout our member eye banks, whose military experience benefits them as eye bankers, and contributes to our mission to #RestoreSight worldwide. Because we have so many Veterans to honor, we’re taking the full Veterans Day week to salute their service.
Here are some of their stories.
William “Drew” Timmons, RN, CTBS
Senior Airman, U.S. Air Force
Transplant Services Center, UT Southwestern
At age nineteen while enrolled in college, Drew Timmons received a not wholly unexpected “kind farewell letter” (his words!) from the Dean.
After doing very well on the military entrance exam, the recruiter told him he could take any path he wished in the Air Force. Half kidding, Drew told the recruiter, “I’d like a job with responsibility, where I can be my own boss, and can travel the world.”
It seemed like a tall order, but the recruiter determined that a role as an aircraft loadmaster on cargo planes would be an ideal fit. After basic training at Lackland AFB, Drew learned how to load cargo planes, making sure the cargo was properly stored, tied down, and distributed.
During his six years with the Air Force, Drew was stationed in Washington state, England, and Charleston, South Carolina; he also traveled to 24 foreign countries. Drew cites these experiences – interactions with people from different walks of life and exposure to various cultures, as the reason he so enjoys helping people. He says, “The travel and interaction with so many people in different nations teaches you that people are people, no matter where you are. I think about that when we send corneal tissue overseas.”
With the discipline he learned from his military service, Drew went back to college and was consistently on the Dean’s list. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Geography, and later went to nursing school for his RN. He penned a beautiful article on how a specific experience in the military led him to nursing.
Spending two years as a bedside nurse, Drew was often the person who helped grieving families after they’d lost a loved one. He would ask them to consider eye and organ donation, and found that it offered the families comfort – the pain of their loss was mitigated by being able to help someone else. Because of his experience with donation, he accepted a job at an organ procurement agency.
In 1999, Drew’s wife felt called to Seminary School in Dallas. While exploring his local employment options, Drew happened to pass by the Transplant Services Center at UT Southwestern. On a whim, he entered the building and dropped his resume off at the front desk. Before he could pull away to head home, he heard a tap on his car window. Donna Drury had looked over his credentials and noticed they had some friends and colleagues in common. She hired him as the Hospital Outreach & Development Coordinator – what was supposed to be a three-year stint has lasted 21 years and continues today.
Drew loves that he is able to participate in all aspects of his eye bank’s functions, and that he “never gets bored.” Working with donor families brings him true joy, and he finds that his military training and discipline is an asset.
Today, Drew still thinks back on his military experience fondly. “Being in the military forces you out of your isolated communities and opens your eyes to the world. You owe it to your country to serve—everyone should commit two years to service, whether it be military, or the Peace Corps, or something similar.”
Senior Airman, Intelligence Analyst, U.S. Air Force
Chief Business Development Officer, Saving Sight
For some, military service is a calling –something they know they are destined to do. Such was the case for Patrick Gore. Without any real family or outside influence, he always knew he wanted to serve in the military, specifically the U.S. Air Force.
After high school in Tampa, FL, Patrick reported to basic training in San Antonio, TX. Military life was as he expected, and he didn’t experience any real culture shock while transitioning from civilian life.
From 1988 – 1993, he was stationed in Omaha, NE, in the Middle East, and South Korea. Patrick’s time in the service coincided with the Persian Gulf War, and looking back on the experience, he considers it “pretty remarkable.” “You don’t think about it much while you’re living the day-to-day,” he says. “The gravity sets in later, being part of such a huge, historic undertaking.”
Patrick’s role was as an Intelligence Analyst, and the details of his work can’t be discussed because much of it is still classified. He does reveal that being part of real-time live missions is an adrenaline rush. “When SCUD missiles were launched at us, we were part of the chain that went and looked for them,” he explains. “We helped notify aircraft to find and destroy them.” He describes the work as, “Long hours of boredom followed by intense moments of adrenaline.”
Because of his high-level security clearance, Patrick made good use of the military transport system and was able to travel extensively, including places like Greece, England, Germany, and throughout South Korea.
After completing his military service, Patrick was drawn to medicine. He enrolled in college, earned his RN, and became aware of eye banking during that time. His grandmother was an eye donor, making eye banking even more appealing as a career choice.
Patrick finds that eye banking has a lot in common with military service. “A lot of the same elements are there – the teamwork, discipline. It’s mission-driven, completing service to others, for a greater good.”
He looks back on his military experience with “no regrets” and recommends military service to others, especially the Air Force. “It’s a great branch,” he says, with a hint of a biased laugh in his voice.
Lieutenant, U.S. Navy
Over the past months, many people have been struggling with living a more confined life than usual because of COVID-19. Whatever level of quarantine anyone has been experiencing,
But, that’s exactly what Paul LaBarre of SightLife experienced during his six years in the Navy, working his way up to Lieutenant. Growing up in Connecticut, Paul always had a sense of adventure. He was in the ROTC in college at Northwestern University in Illinois and went immediately into the Navy as an Officer after graduation.
After training assignments in both Orlando and Idaho Falls, he was assigned to his first submarine, the USS Whale. The nuclear sub traveled under Arctic ice conducting strategic mapping around the North Pole. Paul says the hardest part of transitioning into the Navy was immediately being under sea for more than two months. “It was not a gentle transition,” he says. “But it taught me resilience and how to remain calm during times of uncertainty.”
Being part of a submarine crew is an elite assignment. There are only about 150 people on board, and they must pass multiple levels of psychological and technical training and assessments to ensure they’re able to handle the unique and mentally demanding environment. Paul’s first assignment on a submarine was as an Electrical Officer. He explains, “Submarines have miles and miles of electrical cable and instruments. They create their own power and electrical energy – and we kept it up, running, and well-maintained.”
While being in a submarine environment was challenging, Paul also liked the camaraderie that comes with being on the crew. “You build trust with your team through Naval traditions,” he says. “Earning your ‘dolphins’ (a pin) a year after you come on board shows your commitment. Other ‘rites of passage’ like the crossing the Equator ceremony, going through the Suez Canal, and Arctic Circle all build strong friendships.”
Paul says the things he was most excited to do once back on land were calling home, breathing real fresh air, and getting into the outdoors. Through his military career some of his travels and ports of call included: The North Pole, Norway, Scotland, Crete, Singapore, Puerto Rico, and Germany. These experiences gave him a greater understanding and respect for other cultures. He finds this translates to his domestic and international work for SightLife today saying, “Our job is not to change the culture but to find solutions that work within the culture – meeting patients where they are.”
When Paul decided he wanted to raise a family, he ended his Naval career, but still wanted to do something service oriented. He held several positions in different aspects of private sector and non-profit healthcare before coming to SightLife. He likens eye banking’s similarity to the military in that it is mission-driven.
His military background and training help him keep a positive attitude, embrace teamwork, and always represent the organization well. He says that sometimes his Naval background comes up in conversation, while his haircut, or his passion for organizational efficiency sometimes tips people off that he has served.
Paul says, “I always recommend military service to those who know their goals and priorities – but go in with your eyes open. It provides education, global perspective, and will set you up for success.”
Hospital Corpsman 1, U.S. Navy
San Diego Eye Bank
Reaching adulthood in Johnstown, PA, Wayne Dietz knew two things: He was interested in medicine, and he wanted to see a world beyond Johnstown. After a year of college at the University of Pittsburgh – Johnstown, he joined the U.S. Navy.
Because of his specific interest in medicine, Wayne entered the Navy with a guarantee to go though hospital corps training. After completing hospital corpsman school in Great Lakes, Illinois, he was stationed with the 3rd Marine Service Support FFSG in Okinawa, Japan for thirteen months. While Wayne didn’t find the transition from civilian to military life particularly difficult, he admits that Japan was an “interesting experience.” He initially didn’t want to go there, but is glad that he did. “It was very hot and humid, and while I was there we were hit with a category 5 typhoon, he recalls. “Luckily we were safe within the hospital when it hit.”
While serving in Asia, Wayne also had opportunities to visit the Philippines and Guam, both of which he remembers as “exceptionally beautiful.”
When he returned to the U.S., he went to Camp Pendleton in San Diego, CA for a year and half long training program to specialize in urology. He liked that this was a broad opportunity to deal with x-rays, surgery, and lab work. He followed his training by working in the OR with urology surgeons at both the Naval Hospital in San Diego, and at Camp Pendleton.
After 10 years with the Navy, Wayne decided to leave because he wanted to settle permanently in San Diego. “I think I left at the right time,” he says.
Knowing he wanted to stay within medicine, he saw an opening at the San Diego Eye Bank, applied for the job, and has been there for 35 years. He says his military experience helps him as an eye banker because it helped him develop “QA mentality” with “good organizational skills and structure.” He likes that both the military and eye banking stress teamwork and working for cause greater than any one individual.
Wayne remembers a specific instance in the early 90’s when 12-15 infants needed corneas. Seeing parents of these babies in tears and so grateful that their children would experience life being able to see was really moving for him. “Eye banking may not be as dramatic as working with organs, but people are able to SEE. So many take sight for granted. It makes a profound difference in people’s lives, and therefore the job is very rewarding.”
Like a lot of veterans, Wayne admits there are ways one can tell he served in the military without even asking him. Dead giveaways are the precise way he folds his clothes and makes his bed. Looking back on his service, Wayne would recommend the military to most people, saying, “Even just a year or two is good. It can help with college fees and discipline.”
The Team at Miracles in Sight
Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army, National Guard
President and CEO, Miracles In Sight
In 1977, Dean Vavra joined the Army at the ripe age of 17, after encouragement from his oldest brother who was an Army Vietnam Veteran. Dean’s father had also been in the Army, and the Navy.
For Dean, it was an ideal time to enlist. The Vietnam War had ended, the economy was struggling, and there wasn’t much opportunity for a young guy just getting his start.
After being trained as a medic, Dean’s 22-year military career kicked off at Fort Campbell on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee. Following three years as a field medic, he re-enlisted for eye technician training and went to Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Denver, CO. It was here, working in the eye clinic that he learned about eye banking and performed his first recovery in 1981. During his time in Denver, Dean worked at the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank on nights and weekends while also attending college and still in the Army.
When the Persian Gulf War started in 1990, Dean found himself stationed in both Iraq and Kuwait tasked with eye care and medic duties. When he came home, he had 14 years in the Army and took a seven year break to raise his children, finish college, earn his MBA, and work full time at Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank learning all aspects of eye banking and the innovative changes in the field over time.
In 1999, Dean entered the National Guard. After 9/11, he was a medic with a Special Forces battalion and went to Afghanistan for a year. Working as a medic, he was also the eye tech for Dr. Robert Enzenauer, who he still works with today, as the Chair of Miracles in Sight’s board, and Associate Medical Director. In addition to military duties, as a pair they performed eye surgeries not just for American soldiers, but on local Afghan children with eye damage from land mine accidents, or genetic deformities. Helping these children also developed relationships with locals, and sometimes led to them giving the U.S. Army information and intelligence about enemies and the Taliban. Dean refers to this as “asymmetric warfare.”
Dean credits his military training for his ability to run an effective eye bank. He explains, “It gives you the discipline and mentality that you can do anything if you put your mind to it, and not to let little obstacles get in the way.” Beyond day to day management, he also believes the military taught him leadership skills not only for himself, but to prepare others to step into leadership roles.
“The military shows you how to teach, and teaching people makes you a better eye banker. I stress three things in any process or procedure – and I learned this from the military. A task has to be: So simple your can do it in the dark. Do it when your hands are wet. And do it when you’re scared. Simplicity. Simplicity. Simplicity.”
Although being an Army medic exposed Dean to many different areas of medicine, he knows he is meant to be an eye banker. His grandmother, mother, and all his brothers are cornea transplant recipients.
Dean says that in eye banking and in life, he can generally spot someone else with military training without even asking them. “You can tell by the discipline,” he says. “You learn to adapt to adversity and laugh it off. You uplift others, keep people informed, and look after their welfare.”
Dean recommends military service to anyone just starting out or looking for direction. “The Army has some of the best technical schools in the world. You get great training, can retire fairly young, with good benefits, and health coverage.”
More than anything, military service has allowed Dean to travel the world, experience other cultures, and deepen his passion for restoring sight. He explains, “People are people wherever you go – let them see again, let them live a happy life. Sight transcends religion, race, class, everything.”
Dr. Robert Enzenauer
General, U.S. Army
Chair of Board of Directors, Miracles in Sight
There was something special about Dr. Robert Enzenauer’s high school in South Saint Louis. He was one of four from his graduating class who were accepted into prestigious West Point Military Academy.
Dr. Enzenauer says he knew from around age 11 that he wanted to attend West Point – although he’s unsure exactly why. Laughing, he says, “It could have just been from the movies.” His father was a WWII Army veteran who painted houses, and Dr. Enzenauer was the first of his family to attend college. “Going into West Point, I had no idea what to expect,” Dr. Enzenauer says. “I am proud to have finished. My class started at about 1,300 students and only 870 graduated.”
Following West Point, Dr. Enzenauer attended medical school at the University of Missouri, with the intention of being a heart surgeon. He quickly shifted his focus to pediatrics, and eventually added a second residency in ophthalmology. While working at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Colorado, Dr. Enzenauer’s path crossed with Dean Vavra’s (CEO, Miracles in Sight) for the first of many instances throughout his career. Following his time at Fitzsimons, Dr. Enzenauer had stops at the Rocky Mountain Eye Bank, and the University of Tennessee. In 1994 he left active duty and retired as a LTC Lieutenant Colonel, and petitioned the Secretary of the Army, Togo West, to join the National Guard. So, in 1995 he joined the Colorado National Guard as a flight surgeon. He subsequently convinced Dean to join with him around 1998, to finish up his time in the Reserve Component to qualify for a military retirement.
After 9/11, Dr. Enzenauer was activated, along with Dean, to go to Afghanistan for about eight months. While there, he performed ocular surgeries, on not only soldiers but Afghan children. As one can imagine, the operating conditions were “primitive” at best. “The operating microscope I was using was literally in a box from 1986,” Dr. Enzenauer says, “I was forced to be flexible and make the best of what I had. I wasn’t going to let someone go blind just because I didn’t have the best equipment.”
Conditions aside, Dr. Enzenauer says he enjoyed his time in Afghanistan, and adds it to a considerable list of places he’s visited while serving, including Thailand, the Philippines, Jordan, Honduras, Panama, Haiti, and Uganda. The Philippines sticks out as a favorite to him saying, “There are great people everywhere, but the people in the Philippines were just exceptional.”
Returning to the U.S., Dr. Enzenauer went to the Children’s Hospital at the University of Colorado, where he still practices in his specialty of pediatric ophthalmology. He also Chairs the Board of Directors at Miracles in Sight and serves as an Associate Medical Director. He plans to continue eye banking as long as Dean does.
Dr. Enzenauer says people can probably tell he has a military background because he “hates whiners,” and has learned to be flexible and adapt to any circumstances.
He would also recommend military service to others considering being doctors, saying, “As long as you’re willing to say, ‘Yes, sir’, and drop everything to go to Iraq, it’s a great thing. It helped me pay for college and medical school.”
Corporal, U.S. Army
Vice President of Donor Logistics, Miracles In Sight
When you grow up in Alaska camping, fishing, and exploring the outdoors, the transition from civilian to military life is far less jarring than it is for most people. Such was the case for Ingrid Schunder.
Following high school, Ingrid enrolled in college and quickly found out that she wasn’t quite ready for it. She lacked the discipline required to balance scholastics with working, and wasn’t truly getting her money’s worth from her classes.
As fate would have it, following her first semester, her car broke down and the person who pulled over to help her happened to be an Army recruiter. Ingrid enlisted the next day. Growing up in an Air Force family, choosing the Army was an expression of her independence. “I wanted to do my own thing,” Ingrid explains. “I thought the Army would be the bigger challenge.”
One month shy of her 19th birthday, Ingrid reported to Ft. Jackson in South Carolina for basic training. More than anything, she remembers the summer heat and humidity hitting her like a ton of bricks when she walked off the plane – quite a difference from Alaska! During her training she ended up in 94 Bravo as an Army cook.
Following basic training she reported to Ft. Hood in Texas. Because she had experience with large machinery, she ended up driving a lot of big trucks and equipment around base. She also served as the Commanding General’s mess attendant, making sure the Generals got their made to order meals, and was the caterer for color guard special events and ceremonies.
As a woman on base, she’s happy to report that she never experienced any sort of sexism from her commanding officers but acknowledges, “I know that’s not the case of all women in the military.” Any comments or ribbing from peers she was able to shrug off as “par for the course.”
After the Army, Ingrid returned to college while also working and earned both BA and BS degrees. Bilingual in English and Spanish, she turned to teaching in various capacities over the next few years.
While living in Austin, Texas, she made friends with someone who worked at the local tissue bank. Intrigued, she got a part-time job doing tissue recovery. While on recoveries, she’d often see the eye bank person do their role in cornea retrieval, and decided it was more in-line with her interests and skills.
In 1999 she began working as a night and weekend recovery tech. At the Lone Star Lions Eye Bank, she did all she could to learn the various roles and processes throughout the field of eye banking. Knowing Dean Vavra from his slit-lamp teaching sessions, she accepted a job at Miracles In Sight in 2013 as their Supervisor of Recovery Staff. In 2016 she earned her MBA in Leadership. She is now the Vice President of Logistics.
Ingrid says, “The Army teaches you to be adaptable. You need to have a ‘plan B’ since your initial plan often does not pan out. It also teaches you the importance of following the rules, gives you discipline, and shows you to value teamwork.”
Building support systems and trust is part of her management style, and Ingrid notes that, “You need to be able to count on whoever is on your right and on your left. I won’t ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.”
She laughs saying that people can often spot her military training without even asking her. “A lot of times it’s my posture – I default to standing at attention. Sometimes it’s the phrases I use like, ‘That’s a no-go’ or ‘squared away.’ Those military terms never leave you.”
Ingrid recommends service to anyone and is trying to convince her son to enlist. If she had discovered medicine earlier in her life, she says she likely would have been a medic in the Army. Even without direct military medical training, her experiences in the service transcend to her daily work duties making her a better eye banker, and Miracles in Sight a better eye bank.
Corporal, U.S. Army
Vice President of Operations, Miracles in Sight
Growing up in Pittsburgh, PA, Mike Tramber always thought he wanted to be a doctor. As a junior in high school, when approached by an Army recruiter,
When Mike found out the Army would assist him and his family in paying for college, AND offered a “split-option” program where he could fulfill his bootcamp requirements during the summer before his senior year, return home to complete high school, and then immediately report to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio for AIT (Advanced Individual Training) training, he was sold. He enlisted right then, as a junior in high school.
Although he was the youngest guy at bootcamp, Mike took with him his “go with the flow” attitude and excelled in the environment at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. Prior to arriving, he talked with family and friends who had already been through bootcamp, and felt comfortable and prepared for the experience. Returning to finish high school afterwards, he felt an increased sense of maturity and took things more seriously. “Bootcamp made me more ready for college and the real world,” Mike says.
After graduating high school, Mike trained to become an Army Lab Technician. He credits his military training for his proficiency at reading medical charts and reports and running lab tests. He believes this deep understanding gave him a “leg-up” in his career, allowing him to advance faster.
Mike spent eight years as a reservist, although he was never activated to serve an actual tour. He was put on standby during Desert Storm and was honorably discharged in 1998.
During his first year in college at Gannon University in Erie, PA, Mike realized he didn’t want to pursue being a doctor. The years of schooling, and immense expenses were just too much. However, his military experience offered him a broad vision of what working in medicine looked like—there were far more possibilities than just being a doctor. “The field of donation allowed me to help people, and gives me surgical opportunities,” Mike explains. “Plus, I get to hear great personal stories about how donation has changed so many lives.”
Mike worked at CORE in Pittsburgh until 2002 before moving to Durham, NC for a management opportunity at Carolina Donor Services. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Health Care Management from Mt. Olive College in Raleigh in 2010, and later an MBA from Winston Salem State University in 2014. Seeing an opportunity for further advancement, he joined the North Carolina Eye Bank, which is now Miracles in Sight.
Defying stereotypes, Mike says you wouldn’t necessarily know about his years of military service by meeting him. “I’m a goofball,” he says. “I was raised to say ‘Yes, sir, and no ma’am,’ so that’s not from the military. I’m not an early riser or super regimented.”
He does admit there are plenty of ways the Army has made him a better eye banker, saying, “It definitely instilled in me great discipline, strong work ethic, and overall sense of service to others.”