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.”