Disabled Vets Reach for the Stars

Knights building an observatory for war wounded

Knights building an observatory for war wounded

When Jim Surman first asked how the Knights of Columbus could help veterans at the VA Hospital in Aspinwall, Pa., the veterans and administration overwhelmingly favored one particular activity: the establishment of an astronomy program.

To that end, Stephen P. Barry Assembly 944 is building an observatory with a sliding roof so that disabled veterans can learn about astronomy and survey the planets, stars and galaxies.

“We have branded this project ‘Astronomy for Disabled Veterans,’ or A4DV,” said Surman, who is the assembly’s chairman for disabled veterans programs. “This effort is expected to enrich the lives of hospitalized veterans with healing activities that provide a therapeutic experience, offer lasting involvement, and help to address a national veteran suicide problem. 

Astronomical viewings at the observatory will help alleviate the loneliness that many VA residents admit to experiencing, he explained.

“We Americans have a special place in our hearts for the women and men who have unselfishly and admirably served our country,” Surman said. “For our disabled veterans, nighttime in a hospital facility is often a very lonely time.”

Such loneliness can lead to depression and suicide ideation, Surman noted. As evidence, he cited a VA study showing that 84 percent of returning veterans have some form of depression and that 28 percent contemplate suicide. Some – too many – do ultimately take their own lives.

“This observatory will give our disabled veterans the hands-on ability to explore our galaxy in person, as well as from computers inside the facility for the less mobile veterans,” Surman said. “More importantly, this will be an interesting activity available to offset those lonely evening hours.”

It wasn’t out of the clear dark night that the VA veterans requested an astronomy program. Assembly 944 had already collaborated with the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh (AAAP) in hosting several Star Party field trips for hospitalized veterans to the Wagman and Mingo Creek observatories in the Pittsburgh area. “The on-site trips enabled our veterans to experience real-time observations, and the feedback from these celestial observers tells us our efforts are heading in the right direction,” Surman said.

The VA Administration has said the Astronomy for Disabled Veterans program is the first of its kind in the nation, Surman pointed out. 

The assembly, which is headquartered in the Pittsburgh suburb of McKeesport, has enlisted the assistance of the AAAP for equipment selection, technical support, and ongoing consultation for the observatory, which is located on the grounds of the VA hospital, a few miles north of McKeesport. Assisted by graduate students from Carnegie Mellon University, the AAAP will conduct telescope training and astronomy sessions for interested veterans at the hospital, he added. 

Funding for the observatory is a key objective of the assembly. They plan to purchase a 12-inch telescope with state-of-the-art camera and electronics to supplement the 9.5-inch Celestron that has been donated. Images from viewing sessions will be archived and made accessible to other disabled veterans online. They also hope to build an astronomy library at the VA using mostly donated books.

The vision is even bigger than that. “Ultimately, a network of VA hospital observatories across the U.S. will provide countless hours of exploration for our veterans,” Surman said. “If weather is inclement in one location, veterans can either call-up archived views from their own computers or from any other observatory across the country to work on imaging, improving, or re-examining viewings.”

To make a donation, make checks payable and send to: Knights of Columbus, SPB Assembly, 1214 Glass Street, White Oak, PA 15131, and write “VA Telescope Project” in the note section. Contributions are also accepted at gofundme.com/astronomy-for-disabled-veterans.