by Jim Price
He has a mile-wide grin with a disposition to match. He has such a positive attitude, it’s several minutes before you notice the gunpowder burns that speckle his face. The dark glasses add to the sense that at some point, something went terribly wrong.
It was January 6, 1968, in a muggy Viet Nam jungle. He was a combat engineer working in the rice patties and rivers of the Mekong Delta. He was out front, leading the way down a trail toward a bridge the enemy had blown a few months earlier. The land mine explosion ripped into Dale Stamper’s face like a shotgun blast, tattooing him with tiny black lines, and even worse rendering him totally blind for the rest of his life.
He was in Oregon recently at the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus to get his third dog, Venture. They were halfway though week two when he found a few minutes between training routes to sit down for a talk. Handsome Venture, coal black despite being part Golden Retriever, sat patiently by waiting to get back to work.
After leaving Viet Nam, Stamper landed back in his home state of California where he enrolled for four months of intensive, live-in training at the Veterans Administration’s Western Blind Rehabilitation Center. He learned the basics of orientation and mobility, Braille and other life skills. “We learned manual skills, like woodworking, but it wasn’t so we could be woodworkers, but so we could learn to do things with our hands,” he said. “It was important to understand you could still do things, even though you couldn’t see. That’s a critical first step to rehabilitation.”
He should know. In the years since getting that first help from the Veterans Administration, Stamper went on to help thousands of veterans himself. He is currently secretary of the national board of directors of the 13,000-member Blinded Veterans Association. “It was formed right after World War II as a group of ‘blind veterans helping blind veterans.’ We lobby Congress and the VA, advocating for blind veterans on many levels. Unfortunately, our organization has grown a lot lately with blinded vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, both men and women.” The association was officially chartered by Congress in 1958.
Coincidently, “Guide Dogs for the Blind also got its start after World War II, primarily as a means to help blinded veterans,” said Dan Rollings, chief instructor for Stamper’s class. “Dale is a great example of what we are all about.”
Stamper got his first dog, a male yellow Lab named Picasso, at the California campus in 1986. “He was my constant partner for more than nine years,” he said. He remembered one afternoon in San Rafael when he and Picasso were approaching a driveway. “There was a hedge between me and the driver pulling out of that driveway. I couldn’t hear the car and the driver couldn’t see me. Suddenly Picasso stopped cold. That probably convinced me more than anything else that I had made the right decision to get a dog. I do know this: my cane could not have done that. By the time my cane found out about that car it would have been too late.”
Stamper grew up in a small farming community in the San Joaquin Valley north of Fresno. He clearly remembered one fateful day sitting in the pew watching the preacher approach the podium: “This very strong feeling came over me that I was going to be doing that same thing.” He was only 11, but that’s exactly what he did. For more than 40 years, he preached in several communities in California, plus Idaho, Oklahoma and even the Philippines.
But he usually doesn’t take his dog to the podium when he preaches. “Early on I did once and afterward my wife recommended I not do that again. She said Picasso got bored and after a while was laying on his back, waving his feet around. She figured most of the people weren’t listening very closely to me,” he smiled.
When we spoke with him again after he was back in Idaho, Stamper said the flight home went well. “Venture curled up under the seat in front of me and I had to wake him up when we landed. And my wife is already in love with him.”
(Venture was raised by Bill and Loree Hippe of Bremerton, WA.)