Tyler native succeeds at U.S. Naval Academy to become its first blind graduate

Tyler native succeeds at U.S. Naval Academy to become its first blind graduate

Destarac noticed his left eye was blurry last March and sought out a diagnosis at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He was initially diagnosed with optic neuritis and was given steroid shots; however, the condition didn’t improve and actually got worse. He was losing vision in his right eye months later.

“I wasn’t really worried at first because even with so little vision in my left eye, I could actually still see really well with my right eye because both eyes were basically working together,” Destarac said.

Vision loss occurs because the cells in your optic nerve die. The optic nerve relays visual information from your eyes to your brain and once these cells die the optic nerve can no longer do its job effectively.

“It’s kind of like closing your eyes and then looking up at the sun, you can still perceive light,” Destarac said.

By August and the start of his senior year at the academy, a series of diagnostic tests — including a genetic test which ultimately revealed the answer — led to Destarac’s diagnosis of Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON), a rare mitochondrial disorder that is progressive in visual loss.
According to the National Institutes of Health, LHON was the first disease to be associated with mitochondrial DNA point mutations and is, therefore, maternally inherited.

Often cloudy and painless, this disorder is most common in young males and there is currently no cure.

“My peripherals are actually still pretty good and work well but I can’t see faces… I can’t see objects,” Destarac said. “If I’m able to identify a door, I would not be able to identify as to whether there is a handle there or not.”

To him, the biggest adjustment is having to change his mental outlook.

“The mindset change was definitely the biggest thing I had to deal with because… I needed to change how I think about things. This is my life right now,” Destarac said.

Naval Academy is known for its rigorous program but with Destarac’s new challenge, the service academy had to think of options.

“They’ve never really seen this before and they’re not really equipped to deal with it either,” he said. “A professor sat me down and asked if I could see the board and … I couldn’t.”

One option was to go to another university that would be better equipped with the resources Destarac needed, which would also allow him to be exempt from repaying the tuition at the Naval Academy. A second option was to take a gap year and get adjusted to his life as being legally blind. The third option was to tough it out at the Naval Academy.

“I decided to finish it out,” Destarac said. “It was a lot of grinding down and meeting with my teachers and figuring things out.”

There was a lot riding on him ‘toughing it out’ because if his grades weren’t up to par, he could get kicked out of the academy and have to pay back the tuition.

However, thanks to collective efforts, especially from his parents, Destarac was able to utilize different tools to help him be successful in the classroom, such as a pair of magnifying goggles and a video magnifier that enlarged documents.

“With everything I had to deal with, I had the best grades ever I had… last semester and this semester,” Destarac said. “And being able to be as successful as I was in some of my more difficult classes, like… aerodynamics, it’s amazing.”

He was also given extra time to complete his exams and used voice-to-text applications to write assignments.

“God willing, I could get my vision back but I am not banking on it,” Destarac said. “I definitely keep my hopes up because I am still young, but right now it’s about keeping that ball rolling.”

Whether it’s hanging out with friends or being able to watch movies a little differently, Destarac keeps his path forward and optimistic.

“Most of the things have stayed pretty much the same, except… I can’t really play tennis anymore. It would be rather difficult, probably funny though,” Destarac said. “I don’t necessarily need a walking stick because I know Annapolis really well… but once I figure out a layout, I’m fine.”

Destarac graduated from Tyler Legacy High School, when it was still known as Robert E. Lee High School, in 2018, where he participated in numerous activities including swimming, chess and student council.

“I am really proud of my time at Tyler, it was a great experience,” he said.

With three older siblings, he is the son of Dr. Luis and Aida Destarac, immigrants from Guatemala who reside in Tyler.

”Throughout his time at the Naval Academy, we tried to encourage our son not only to defend and protect our country but to defend and protect his faith,” Aida said.

To his parents, the most difficult part was understanding the severity of LHON, and how his life would be affected in the short and long term. They were working with the Naval Academy to grant accommodations and figuring out the protocols of having a legally blind military student.

”We didn’t really know where to start, where to go but kept trusting in God and leaning on friends who had attended the Naval Academy and could help guide us along the way,” Aida said.

However, communications improved and they were able to find what worked.

”From the superintendent, dean of academics, the provost, the medical director at the USNA… everyone in between, we are very grateful to his professors,” Aida said. “They became his mentors and friends, and not only helped him and guided him academically but also emotionally.”

His parents do hope to see more accommodations to those with challenges to serve in the military.

”We would also love to see our military opening the doors to visually impaired service men or women in their ranks,” Aida said. “They have so much potential.”

At the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis on May 26, with nearly 1,000 other midshipmen, Destarac graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. He graduated as the first blind midshipman.

Unfortunately, due to the U.S. Navy’s long-standing policy of not accepting a blind service member because he would not be “globally deployable,” Destarac had to rethink his plans. According to the Navy’s website, a service member must meet specific eyesight requirements.

“I’m going to take a gap year so I can spend a little more time making adjustments. I still need to master some things… but I want to go to law school, take the LSATs and become a lawyer… I think I could do a lot of good there,” Destarac said.

”He has been such an example for our family and his friends,” Aida said. “We hope that Alberto’s courageous fight and story brings light to LHON, a devastating condition that affects many young individuals.” Whether it was his parents flying all over to seek answers, the instructors at the Naval Academy helping him along the way or a high school English teacher/mentor with life advice, Destarac had no shortage of support.

“I really appreciate everyone who has been there for me and with me,” Destarac said. “It has been a tough journey but I’ve been able to find new ways of enjoying things and making things work. I’m happy where I am in life right now.”


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