3D, 360-degree video lets infirm vets experience military sites without leaving central Ohio

Veterans who are unable to travel to Washington, D.C., soon will be able to take a virtual tour of sites and monuments there.

Thanks to grant funding and the cooperation of such organizations as Honor Flight Columbus and Ohio’s Hospice, virtual-reality goggles will be used to take veterans in hospice care on a trip modeled after the Honor Flight program that flies thousands of veterans to Washington every year.

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Using an Oculus Go VR headset and a computer, veterans who cannot fly to Washington still can experience visiting its historic structures.

The project began in earnest when Marissa Buckles, a gift and grant officer for Ohio’s Hospice, a nonprofit hospice network with nine Ohio locations, began researching ways to fund the VR concept through the company’s American Pride program, a veteran-focused hospice-care program.

“My goal was really to help us explore the opportunities to help find funding support for this project to be able to bring the VR goggles in,” Buckles said. “Through some of the partnerships we had and the exploration we had into the technology, we had some interest.”

The virtual tours for the program are coming from StoryUp, a company that produces data-oriented VR experiences. But the technology, according to the parties involved, is flexible enough to use other sources in the future. The program uses a 3D, 360-degree video designed to make veterans feel as though they’re actually at the sites. Missouri-based Honor Everywhere began using the technology a few years ago for terminally ill WWII veterans.

Buckles said she was able to secure a $10,000 grant from the PNC Foundation that would go toward implementation and acquisition of the technology.

With that funding secured, Ohio’s Hospice has partnered with Honor Flight Columbus to begin implementing the plan.

Honor Flight Columbus has taken thousands of World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans to Washington to visit the monuments erected in their honor, and its president, Jim Downing, said the VR program should give Honor Flight a reach it never has achieved before.

“We’ll still be able to give them somewhat of the same experience,” he said. “If they can’t go on an 18-hour day trip, they can do a 20-minute or half-hour presentation with the VR goggles. They very well deserve it.”

Downing said he talks with veterans every day who can’t make the trip to Washington and he believes the VR program meets a real need.

“We’re calling for this season (of Honor Flight), and we’ve got 100 booked for our first flight,” he said. “Out of that 100, we probably made 200 phone calls. And probably 15 of those couldn’t go because of health reasons, whether they’re in (chemotherapy) or they’ve just been diagnosed with something, they say they just can’t handle the long days.”

Joe Machado of Baltimore is a Vietnam War veteran who serves on the Honor Flight Columbus board of directors. He said the Honor Flight experience is less about a sightseeing tour and more about honoring the service of the veterans themselves. He said he believes the VR experience can achieve some of that without leaving a hospice bed.

“I see it as augmenting that recognition of a veteran and fully understand, to the degree that we can get it to them, that they are respected and that their service was worthwhile,” he said. “I think the goal is to recognize veterans in a very special category – those who are nearing the end of their life and who are not mobile enough to travel with us on an Honor Flight trip.”

The program is far from complete, and all parties involved are working to add destinations and experiences to their VR options.

Some of the work could come to fruition with additional funding, which Buckles is exploring, she said.

“We’re really looking to expand upon and build out the experience itself,” she said. “What we have right now is a very quick overview of (most of) the monuments in D.C. ... We really want to personalize that so that individuals can spend some time at whatever memorial really honors the period of their service.”

The VR tour currently includes the USS Nimitz, the U.S. Navy’s “oldest and finest aircraft carrier,” according to the Navy’s official USS Nimitz website; the Women in Military Service for America Memorial; the 2-acre Vietnam Veterans Memorial; and a few others that focus largely on the National World War II Memorial.

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Few veterans have experienced the test program thus far, but Machado said one of his few experiences sharing it with a friend was very encouraging.

“I took the goggles over to him and put them on ... and he was going through all the gyrations – looking behind him, looking above him, looking at both sides of him – and having a pretty good time of it,” Machado said. “At the end of the time, I took the goggles off and asked him what he thought, and his comment was, ‘Has my friend, Bob, seen this?’ So I knew it would be well-received with veterans who are fully aware.”

In the short term, the program is expected to be introduced to veterans at Ohio’s Hospice, which has locations in Dayton, London, Middletown, Newark, Springfield, Troy, Washington Courthouse, Wilmington and Wooster, in the near future, though a specific date and location haven’t been determined. Ohio’s Hospice also serves a small number of inpatient units at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.

Craig Schrolucke, Ohio’s Hospice communications director, said the long-term goal is to make the program available to those in hospice throughout Ohio who are either in Ohio’s Hospice facilities or “simply nearing the end of their life.”

For more information on Honor Flight or the VR program, go to www.HonorFlightColumbus.org. For more information on Ohio’s Hospice, go to www.OhiosHospice.org.

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VIRTUAL TOUR SITES

In addition to the USS Nimitz, these are the sites on the virtual-reality tour to Washington, D.C.:

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