VA names new blind rehab center in honor of fallen Army OD

January 26, 2012

After hundreds of AOA doctors and students launched a nationwide grassroots campaign aimed at honoring the service and sacrifice of a respected colleague and fallen American hero, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officially dedicated the Major Charles Robert Soltes, Jr., O.D. VA Blind Rehabilitation Facility Jan. 25 on the campus of the VA Long Beach Healthcare System in Long Beach, Calif.

Among those in attendance at the dedication of the Major Charles Robert Soltes, Jr., O.D., Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Blind Rehabilitation Facility were, from left, John Townsend, O.D., VA Optometry Service Director; Donald Gagliano, M.D., Director, Vision Center of Excellence; Terry J. Lantz, O.D., Chief, Army Optometry and Consultant to the Surgeon General; Robert A. Petzel, M.D., VA Under Secretary for Health; Hilary Hawthorne, O.D., AOA trustee; Major Jeff Autry , O.D., U.S. Air Force and Armed Forces Optometric Society Vice President; Sally Dang, O.D., Major Soltes’ widow and VA optometrist; and Major Jinjong Chung O.D., U.S. Army.

A lasting tribute to the life and legacy of U.S. Army Major Charles R. (Rob) Soltes, Jr. O.D., the first Army optometry officer to be killed in action while on active duty, the new blind rehabilitation facility is a major advancement for America’s blinded veterans and serves as an important step toward AOA’s mission of ensuring enhanced access to essential optometric services and improved quality of care for all veterans, particularly those with low-vision.

In attendance at the official dedication ceremony were several leading federal and state officials, including VA Under Secretary for Health Robert A. Petzel, M.D. Sally Dang, O.D., Major Stoles’ widow, was also in attendance and played a leading role in the observance. Dr. Dang will now serve as a low-vision optometrist at the new center as she continues her commitment to provide low-vision services to blinded veterans, a promise made to her husband prior to his deployment to Iraq.

Optometry marked the occasion with the presentation of a special memorial plaque honoring Dr. Soltes, which will be prominently displayed at the new facility. Former California Optometric Association president and current AOA Trustee Hilary Hawthorne, O.D. attended the ceremony on behalf of the profession, where she presented VA officials with the memorial and offered words of praise for Dr. Soltes.

“Dr. Soltes was a dedicated Army officer, educator and military optometrist. Today’s commemoration serves as a fresh reminder of the selfless service given every day by our fighting men and women,” said AOA Trustee Hilary Hawthorne, O.D.

“While Rob was truly a real-life American hero, he was also a friend to many and a respected colleague to us all. In the coming years, I know that Rob’s devotion to his patients, his profession and to his country will be renewed each and every time a patient’s quality of life improves at this new facility bearing his name,” Dr. Hawthorne added.

A devoted military doctor of optometry, Maj. Rob Soltes served as a public health officer in the 426th Civil Affairs Battalion, U.S. Army Reserves. In 2004, he was deployed to Mosul, Iraq to command a public health team charged with setting up seven hospitals aimed at providing local Iraqi communities with greater access to a range of health care services, including much-needed vision and eye health care services.

On Oct. 14, 2004, Maj. Soltes and his colleagues were traveling back from a high-level meeting with Iraqi health officials when the convoy in which they were riding came under attack. A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device rammed the Humvee in which Maj. Soltes was traveling, resulting in his death. Soltes, 36, had only been in Mosul for a few weeks when he was killed in the line of duty.

“This lasting tribute should serve as a permanent reminder of the thousands of men and women – including countless health care professionals – serving our nation at home and abroad,” said AOA President Dori Carlson, O.D.

“Rob was well-liked and well-known among his colleagues for his commitment to his patients and his country. Sadly, though, he paid the ultimate price. But, his sacrifice will not be forgotten. It is our hope that by naming this new blind rehab facility in his honor, that the memory of Dr. Soltes will provide both inspiration for its caregivers and renewed hope for its patients,” Dr. Carlson added.

AOA Trustee Hilary Hawthorne, O.D., and Sally Dang, O.D., Major Soltes’ widow, present the AOA’s Maj. Rob Soltes Jr, O.D., memorial plaque to Isabel Duff, director, VA Long Beach Healthcare System. Honoring the life and legacy of Major Soltes, O.D., the plaque will be prominently displayed in the new blind rehabilitation center now bearing Dr. Soltes’ name.

Dr. Soltes graduated from New England College of Optometry in 1994, and soon after accepted a commission in the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps. He then became the first optometry graduate of the prestigious Brooke Army Medical Center’s Residency Program, obtaining advanced training in the diagnosis and treatment of ocular disease and acute trauma.

Throughout his Army career, Maj. Soltes assumed many leadership positions and received numerous military decorations, and was instrumental in establishing a much-needed medical clinic for the local population in Iraq. A video tribute celebrating the life and legacy of Maj. Rob Soltes, O.D. can be found on the AOA’s YouTube channel at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHuZgLaqA1A

The new blind rehab facility is reported to be notable in design, architecture and function. In addition to out-patient care for a range of low vision conditions, the facility will also offer concentrated in-patient rehabilitation programs designed to allow visually impaired veterans patients to assist and encourage each other. The center will offer services to visually impaired veterans of all ages, including those with vision impairment not necessarily related to their military service.

Working closely with hundreds of AOA doctors and students, the Blinded Veterans Association played a pivotal role in helping the AOA secure unanimous approval in Congress of the key legislation honoring Maj. Soltes.

View the AOA-TV update featuring this story at http://www.iwantmyaoatv.com/player.php?video=79B3667F.

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