Therapeutic science doctoral student Tim Hornik's disability doesn't slow him down

November 10, 2014

By Greg Peters

Tim Hornik

For Tim Hornik, a doctoral student in the therapeutic science program in the Department of Occupational Therapy Education, the events of Veterans Day 10 years ago dramatically changed his life.

Hornik's Army unit was about to end its patrol for the day on the streets between Baghdad International Airport and the International Zone, when it was called to provide security support to the Iraqi National Guard as it infiltrated a mosque. Its job was to lock down the outer perimeter.

The Humvee (high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle) and Bradley Fighting Vehicles in Hornik's unit were sent out, and shortly after their arrival, a sniper shot a soldier who was on foot, and a Bradley team evacuated the man to a combat support hospital.

Hornik immediately elected to move his Bradley to replace a Bradley that was lost in an improvised explosive device (IED) incident earlier in the day. The tank commander normally sits in the turret, but Hornik chose to sit with his head exposed, so he could use binoculars to locate the shooter. A sniper shot hit Hornik in the temple, and the bullet exited through his right eye.

"A 7.62mm bullet packs a punch similar to a sledgehammer," says Hornik, who was serving in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. "Miraculously, though, this impact failed to kill me or knock me unconscious. To this day, I recall the fraction of a second before losing my sight as my Wiley-X's (sunglasses) started to leave my head, and my gunner reporting that I was in a heap on the floor."

Adjusting to blindness

A native of Chicago, Hornik, 34, was shot on Nov. 11, 2004 - Veterans Day and one day before his birthday. During the 10 years that followed that fateful November day in Baghdad, a lot has changed for Hornik. He and his family have learned how to live with the physical, emotional and psychological adjustments associated with blindness.

"The toughest part with adjusting to blindness stems not from the blindness itself, but rather internal struggles," he says. "My primary goals after the injury involved resuming my military career and progressing through the ranks. I tried my best to hide my disabilities to outsiders in a process known as 'passing.'"

Despite his blindness, Hornik remained motivated to move up the ranks in the Army, but to do this he had to be perceived as a "normal" soldier. He remained on active duty but realizing he would never deploy again, so he requested a transfer to Acquisitions, where he could help evaluate equipment that was going to be sent to the front line.

In spite of his best efforts, Hornik struggled to accomplish everyday tasks. He grappled with bouts of anger, depression and jealousy as friends and relatives were promoted and deployed, while he literally stumbled over objects in his way. His marriage to a fellow soldier was rocky as was the rest of his life. He admits by clinging to his identity as an Army officer he was neglecting acceptance of his new persona as a blind person.

A psychology major in college, Hornik eventually realized that he had to stop fighting himself and accept his new state of being. Since then, things have gotten smoother. He has become more open about his limitations and knows how to ask for help. His wife is a key part of his support network.

"My wife is my primary support," he says. "She has seen me through the entire journey. She has been there during the extremely rough times, primarily waiting until I reached a point where I hit bottom and needed help. She is the best wife and mother I could ever ask for."

Coming to KU

In 2008, the Army created a Wounded Warriors Scholarship program to help soldiers earn master's degrees from the University of Kansas. Hornik jumped at the chance and completed his master's degree in social work in 2010. It was during these years in Lawrence that Hornik forged a friendship that has changed the lives of the two families.

During his first year in the KU School of Social Welfare, he was a student of professor Edward Canda, M.A., MSW, Ph.D. In in his second year, he was a student intern at Lawrence Memorial Hospital where Canda's wife, Hwi-Ja Canda, was the social work coordinator. Hornik made a lasting impression on both Candas, especially Hwi-Ja.

"We both recognized him as a highly resilient and proactive student with promise to help veterans and other people with disabilities," Ed Canda says. "My wife was so impressed with Tim's work at the hospital that she nominated him for an Outstanding Master of Social Work Practicum Student Award. The School of Social Welfare agreed and gave him the award."

The Candas went from teachers, to mentors to members of Hornik's family. When Hornik's wife, Cate, delivered their baby, Abigail, at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, Hwi-Ja was one of the first to meet the new family. The Candas quickly bonded with the baby and it didn't take long for them to take on the status of grandparents.

After retiring from the Army as a captain in 2011, Hornik applied for social work positions with area Veterans Administrations, the Wounded Warrior Project and the Army Wounded Warrior Project Advocacy program, but was not hired. He says this forced him take a step back for self-evaluation. Friends, colleagues and mentors suggested various Ph.D. programs and suggested he focus on advocacy.

"The master's in social work and licensure was not enough to get a job," he says.

Last spring, Hornik was the first recipient of the Bill and Shanthi Eckert Wounded and Disabled Veteran Scholarship, and this fall he began doctoral classes in therapeutic science.

Therapeutic science

The doctorate in therapeutic science generally takes between four and five years to complete. The program combines taking a core of classes from the Occupational Therapy Department and blending that knowledge with an area of emphasis selected by the student, so Hornik splits his time between classes on the Lawrence campus and at KU Medical Center. Winnie Dunn, chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy and one of Hornik's instructors, says Hornik's life experience and sense of humor have an enriching effect on class discussions.

"Everyone gets to choose how they handle challenges that change what they think is their life path," says Dunn. "Perhaps Tim's focus and determination have supported him to make a choice to get the most out of life, no matter what. "

Hornik relies not only on his wife to help in his daily routine, he also counts on friends and classmates. He is also tech-savvy using computer technology and other tools to navigate daily life and help others with vision loss.

Hornik often blogs about the challenges and frustrations he encounters daily as a blind student in a college setting. Recently, he noted that while the main campus and the medical center both use Blackboard, the two exist through different services. As a result, he must log into each site to access materials. Much of this semester has been spent engineering protocols for dealing with the aspects of student life such as learning databases, libraries, buildings, services, personal reminder systems and personal life.

"In the current tech era, so many barriers have been eliminated in regard to a blind person's ability to access data, but no system is perfect," he says. "We end-users of adaptive technologies must continue to remind developers of our needs for success."

"Tim's disability is not a barrier for him in his career development even though it can be very challenging to deal with facilities and academic resources that are not easily accessible," says Hwi-Ja Canda. "When he was my practicum student, he memorized the layout of Lawrence Memorial Hospital in order to find the correct rooms to see patients, and find stairways, elevators, offices and restrooms. Many visitors get lost trying to find the correct offices or patients' rooms, even if they have no issues with their vision."

For his fellow students and peers, Hornik says there are a few myths he'd like to debunk along with some suggestions about dealing with the blind.

"I just require a little bit of extra time to process information," he says. "You don't need to speak louder around me; simply grab my attention so that I know you are talking to me. And please let me know when you leave, so I'm not talking to myself. I do not possess super hearing or sense of touch."

The future

Hornik, who is vice president of the Heartland Regional Group of Blinded Veterans Association, plans to use his degree to assist and advocate for disabled veterans.  After spending the last few years volunteering with different organizations such as the Blinded Veterans Association, Hornik says he is best suited to serve in research, education and advocacy roles, and the Ph.D. will provide the necessary foundation to accomplish this goal.

 So when Hornik dreams of success how does he describe it?

"Success is anything that allows me the opportunity to continue to serve my fellow disabled veteran and inform the public about the common struggles disabilities impose," he says. "I don't have any jobs in mind, just broad objectives that will help me evaluate any offers and opportunities that arise."

"Tim's studies and his work as an advocate and educator are informed by real life experience beyond just academics," Ed Canda says. "He has been able to work through traumatic injury, adjust to blindness, meet the challenges of graduate education and serve as an advocate for veterans and people with disabilities."

Hornik readily admits that being blind "sucks," but he has come to terms with it. Sure he misses wearing his uniform and leading soldiers into battle. He misses driving classic muscle cars and playing paintball with friends. But what he enjoys much more is being able to play with his 4-year-old daughter and appreciating the life that he and his wife have made for their family.


Last modified: Oct 20, 2016