Staff Sgt. Jon French creates Visually Impaired Sighting System

Contact: Lt. Col. William Humes 517-481-8141
Agency: Military and Veterans Affairs

Photo of Staff Sgt. Jon French demonstrating the Visually Impaired Sighting System

November 18, 2015

LANSING, Mich. -- Staff Sgt. Jon French, 1431st Engineer Company, 107th Engineer Battalion, Michigan Army National Guard, has created a weapon sighting system that allows combat-blinded veterans the ability to once again shoot a firearm, enjoy an outdoor hunt, and participate in an activity that they enjoyed prior to losing their eyesight. The new, French Visually Impaired Sighting System (VISS) is a mounted sighting system that allows visually impaired veterans and civilians to participate in hunting and shooting sports. All profits from the sale of a VISS are used to help provide additional VISS systems to wounded U.S. military veterans and to help support organizations that foster veteran and veteran family wellness.

French was wounded in Afghanistan, July 19, 2009, when he was on a route clearance patrol looking for IEDs. He found himself involved in an unexpected firefight and was struck in the chest plate with a rocket propelled grenade.  Recovery took a while, but French was given so much support, in so many ways, including support from members of the outdoor sport and hunting industries, that he was inspired to help others in any way he could. It was because of his significant experience and love for hunting and fishing that he turned to those areas to look for ways to help others.

His focus narrowed to finding a way to help his brother, Dan, who is 100 percent blind, get back to shooting. Jon was determined to design and create a tool that would aide Dan, and injured veterans get back to hunting and doing something they loved. He admits that having a family member that could test each version of the tool was convenient and appreciates his brothers patience as the French VISS took shape.

Traumatic eye injuries account for about 16 percent of all battlefield injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research, and 80 percent of Soldiers with eye injuries were unable to return to duty, compared to 20 percent with other types of injuries.

Some Veterans experience loss of motivation and loss of interest in life after a traumatic event like the loss of their eyesight. If they are not able to continue doing the things they could do before such as hunting, fishing or just enjoy being outdoors; they could become severely depressed. It is difficult to adjust to the loss of sight and once again find pleasure in life’s activities but French hopes that the VISS will help with that adjustment.  His invention is one way he feels he can offer support, and give life and happiness back, to those who have experienced traumatic eyesight loss by getting back out and doing what they love.

“Being able to get back out to doing what I love is extremely therapeutic; I know when I was injured I lost the ability to bend my right arm, I have a full artificial right elbow, when they first put it in I wasn’t able to enjoy shooting sports, and hunting specifically. And outdoor sports were a huge staple in my life. Once you lose that you aren’t sure what direction to go. Being able to get back into the outdoors allowed me to get more focus and direction and realize I can be back to who I was,” said French. 

With the VISS, the "shooter" operates the rifle (loads/carries/operates the safety and trigger) and the bipod/tripod on his/her own. The "spotter" kneels right behind the shooter and helps the shooter put the reticle (cross hairs) on the target (positioning themselves much like a home-plate baseball umpire watching over a catcher's shoulder). While the shooter has his sight lined up on the target, the spotter places a hand flat on the shooters back (this signals the shooter to take the safety off, breathe, and send the round down range). If the target moves or rifle moves off its target, the spotter lifts his or her hand off the shooter's back and no shot is taken. It's pretty simple and very accurate. It's a combination of four shooting fundamentals: marksmanship, teamwork, communication and practice. The French VISS sight just elevates the rifle scope up and to the rear of its normal position (essentially by the shooter's ear) allowing the spotter to help call directions to move the reticle on target.

French builds the sighting systems in his basement for now with donations from local companies and from extra odd jobs he does in his free time.  Massie Manufacturing in Baraga, Mich., has also donated aluminum stock and machine time French needs to construct the main offset bar. Peninsula Powder Coating, Baraga, Mich., has also donated paint and powder coating. There is no profit made from any of the sights. French has manufactured and delivered six systems so far and there are 10 more currently in production. 

“When I was injured and released from Walter Reed Medical Center,” said French, “I was asking myself "What now? Where do I head now with the rest of my life?” Through the generosity of so many people and organizations, I was able to get back to the outdoor sportsman lifestyle I lived prior to my combat injury. Being "re-grounded" in this part of my life brought me back to all the other ideals I hold and strive for. I want to give that direction and help to other military brothers and sisters that need it. Life isn't over once you're injured; it's just a regrouping/re-setting moment and then you get back into life.”

For more information visit French Visually Impaired Sighting System on Facebook.