AOA honors active-duty sacrifice of Army doctor of optometry
Veterans Day is Monday, Nov. 11, but Maj. Charles R. Soltes, O.D., is honored daily.
Fifteen years ago, Dr. Soltes was assigned to the 426th Civil Affairs Battalion in Iraq to help restore the public health infrastructure in Mosul, according to reports at the time. Returning from a hospital visit with Iraqi health officials, he was part of an American convoy struck by an explosive device. He died that day, Oct. 13, 2004, at age 36, from injuries sustained in the blast. He is the only doctor of optometry in recent U.S. military conflicts to die on active duty.
Whether by his family, soldiers who served with him or through optometry, Dr. Soltes' sacrifice has not been forgotten.
"By definition, optometrists are giving professionals," California Optometric Association President Ronald G. Seger, O.D., says. "Maj. Charles R. Soltes is a shining example of our profession's dedication to bestowing the life-enhancing power of proper eye health and vision care.
"As we celebrate the 100th Veterans Day, we are honored that Dr. Soltes set his sights on treating our nation's warriors, service men and women," Dr. Seger observes. "In pursuing his dream, he paid the ultimate sacrifice. We could not be prouder of his inspiring selflessness and the legacy he left our optometric profession."
On Oct. 21, at the Armed Forces Optometric Society's (AFOS's) annual Awards and Membership Meeting, AOA President Barbara L. Horn, O.D., joined in recognizing and honoring Dr. Soltes. Many of his colleagues, friends and family members were in attendance as Dr. Horn presented a plaque in his honor.
"We were honored to have our current AOA President, Dr. Barbara Horn, in attendance at our awards ceremony," says AFOS President Maj. Jason Hales, O.D. "We appreciate her recognition of Dr. Soltes' sacrifice and her special presentation commemorating what would have been 25 years of AOA membership for Rob."
Finding her own way
Dr. Soltes is survived by his wife, Sally Dang, O.D., and three children. Dr. Dang is chief of optometry services at the Long Beach VA, where she provides direct patient care for low vision and traumatic brain injury at the Blind Rehabilitation Center. As crushing as her husband's death was, she credits his passing for helping her find her way into the VA system.
"The work is incredibly meaningful," says Dr. Dang, who wanted to be an optometrist since she was 16 years old when her father partially lost his sight.
She met her husband at the New England College of Optometry (NECO)-and both had dreams. Hers was an optometry practice and his involved the military. From a military family, he attended Norwich University, the nation's oldest private military college, and joined the Army Reserve in 1990. He was active duty upon graduation, after receiving an Army optometry scholarship in 1992.
"He always wanted to be in the Army," says Dr. Dang, recalling how Dr. Soltes had been wait-listed and then accepted to NECO. "He was such a great advocate for vision and eye care. He was able to combine the two things he loved the most."
Her loss was deep. Her own path took a turn after Dr. Soltes' passing. She had been in private practice. Through an acquaintance, however, she learned about the opening of a new Blind Rehabilitation Center in Long Beach, California, and was recruited to work there.
"Looking back, working with veterans is the perfect job for me," Dr. Dang says. "I'm continuing what he started. Everyone's whose life he touched tells me that they are still inspired by him. He was just one of a kind. He had done everything he needed to do already on this earth."
A fitting tribute
Dr. Soltes is recognized each time veterans and staff navigate the halls of the VA facility in Long Beach. At the entrance of the Blind Rehabilitation Center, a portrait hangs of Dr. Soltes and wayfinding signs bear his name.
To honor Dr. Soltes and his sacrifice, the Department of Veterans Affairs named its facility at the Long Beach VA Healthcare System after him: The Major Charles Robert Soltes, Jr., O.D., Blind Rehabilitation Center. The center provides veterans with skills for daily independent living, optical aid use and computer training among other services.
Hundreds attended the center's dedication in 2012. Said a sponsor in the House of Representatives of the bill authorizing the designation, according to the congressional record:
"When we name this center for Major Soltes today, we honor his family, his memory and his military service, but also his service as a doctor who helped people see more clearly. Fittingly, (his wife Dr. Sally Dang) is also a practicing optometrist."
"May this honor today help us all to see-to see better with our eyes, of course, and to help those veterans suffering with blindness. But also, to see the selfless and wonderful people upon whom our freedoms as a people rest. Major Soltes lies amongst them. May God bless his family and his memory."
The legislation, pushed through the House and Senate by support from the AOA and other veterans' groups, garnered bipartisan support. It had 73 cosponsors in the House.
A chance-and happy-encounter
Dr. Dang had been dreading just a bit the sadness that would come with the 15th anniversary of her husband's death. She'd even gone to his California gravesite in Pacific View Memorial Park to place fresh flowers a few days before the anniversary.
On the anniversary day, she swung by his memorial site again to make sure the flowers were still there and noticed a group of men standing at the graveside. She parked and walked over.
"They had served with him and I got to hear their stories," Dr. Dang says. "I had not ever met them face-to-face. But they said some or all of them had been coming for 15 years. I felt so touched by that. It meant a lot to me. I thanked them for remembering, and I left them feeling better."
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