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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Out of the Darkness

National Veterans Creative Arts Festival

Michelle Tuengel with her award winning entry "Minnesota Backwoods."

Imagine yourself behind the wheel of a large truck, towing a travel trailer, over a mountain pass. You're almost home from a long trip. As you begin the descent downhill, suddenly… everything goes black, lights out; your vision is gone. Sounds like the plot of a dramatic movie doesn't it? Unfortunately, this isn't Hollywood, it's real life and it's what happened to Michelle Tuengel.

Michelle Tuengel is a 30-year Veteran of the Air Force and Vietnam. Like most of the brave men and women who fought over there, she was exposed to Agent Orange. As a result of that exposure, she developed health complications that resulted in her vision loss. According to Tuengel, the worst part of losing her eyesight was her instant inability to do several things she truly enjoyed. An avid fly fisher, leather crafts expert, and a person who enjoys working with their hands, Tuengel was all of these things; now, suddenly they were all gone.

"Minnesota Backwoods" the name of her Gold Medal winning canoe, from the wood model building kit category is a bittersweet reminder of a happier time in her life. Using only her sense of touch, Tuengel began constructing her model kit. After three weeks, several burned and cut fingers later, she was finished. Tuengel states, "If you set your mind to something and you're stubborn enough to keep at it, you can accomplish a lot!"

Attending the Festival wasn't something that Tuengel thought she would enjoy at first, basically because she didn't feel she'd be able to participate much. As she puts it, her fellow artists are people who are very creative thinkers; people who think outside the box. This type of creative thinking has led several of her colleagues to finding new ways for her to enjoy others' work without the use of sight. She's especially excited for the Performing Arts Stage Show, as she is a passionate music fan.

By Darin Farr, public affairs officer, VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System

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