Through the corner of his right eye, Jeff Mittman reads an email.
Using a mouse, the retired soldier drags the cursor across the large computer screen magnifying the text as big as a handprint. At Bosma Enterprises in Indianapolis, Mittman sits with the attentive posture of a seasoned military veteran. Dressed smartly in a charcoal suit, his war-damaged eyes are covered by wraparound sunglasses.
In August, Mittman, MA ’11 MBA ’13, will become the first legally blind CEO of Bosma, which teaches life and job skills to blind or visually impaired Hoosiers and is the state’s largest employer of them.
Founded in 1915, Bosma also helps many of the nearly 160,000 Indiana residents experiencing vision loss become self-sufficient. Mittman joined Bosma as its chief operating officer in 2018.
He became blind as the result of a 2005 roadside bomb blast in Iraq that destroyed his left eye, severely altered the vision in his right eye, tore off his nose and lips, shattered most of his teeth, and badly injured his right arm.
Despite his severe physical injuries, Mittman’s ironclad spirit survived intact. His trailblazing journey from a hospital bed in Walter Reed Army Medical Center to the top executive office at Bosma serves as inspiration for anyone pursuing a dream and tackling obstacles.
Mittman emanates motivation, albeit in the no-nonsense language of a former drill sergeant.
In demand as a speaker across the country, the highly decorated veteran talks about missions, goals, purpose, and leading by example. His message is simple: Make a plan; stick to it.
“Once you decide to do it, you do it.”
Mittman’s plan was to become a business executive after his Army career. The insurgents who stole his vision couldn’t take that dream. And after injuries forced him to retire, Mittman realized an opportunity to pursue his dream sooner than expected.
But, he needed a partner, and he found one in Ball State.
In 2005, Mittman was a 35-year-old master sergeant with 16 years of service, on his fourth combat tour in the Mideast, this time as an advisor to Iraqi Interior Ministry forces.
On July 7, he volunteered to drive one of two armored Humvees to pick up Iraqi soldiers, allies in the fight against insurgents, and transport them to weapons training.
Under a highway overpass in Baghdad, the six Americans drove into an ambush.
An improvised explosive device went off, sending metal tearing through the 6-inch-thick driver’s side window and into Mittman’s face.
A month later, he woke up in Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center, unsure where he was and why he was blind and could not speak. His last memory was watching July 4 fireworks in Iraq, three days before the ambush. Mittman’s wife, Christy, was by his side, helping him piece together the events in a haze of on-again, off-again consciousness.
“For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what she was doing in Baghdad.”
Eventually, a team of three surgeons explained to Mittman that his vision was gone forever. A jumble of questions flooded his mind.
What am I going to do? I can’t lead soldiers in combat any more — how am I going to take care of my family?
That same day, Mittman received more bad news. A soldier friend had died at nearby National Naval Medical Center. Two weeks earlier, his buddy had been injured in a similar roadside attack, not far from where Mittman’s convoy was bombed.
Grief rocked him. But instead of plunging him deeper into sorrow, it turned his perspective around.
Mittman took a mental inventory. He was still alive. He still had his wife and his daughters, Jamie and Peyton.
That day, Mittman vowed to Christy, and himself, to kick self-pity to the side and to move forward. That feeling was confirmed when his daughters saw him for the first time since the accident. Their acceptance was immediate.
“I was just ‘Dad.’ I think it was at that point that I really started to heal and was OK.”
A long line of surgeries
Over the next five years, he endured more than 40 surgeries, traveling with Christy from their home in New Palestine, Indiana, to Walter Reed and back.
Journalist E.A. Torriero for the Chicago Tribune described Mittman’s reconstructed face as a jigsaw.
“His nose is fashioned from his rib cartilage, a forearm flap and forehead skin. His jaw was rebuilt with wires; his cheeks with metal plates,” Torriero wrote.
Though grateful for their talents and dedication, Mittman felt that his surgeons would have operated on him endlessly. Finally, he declared he was done.
Mittman is grateful, too, for the outpouring of support from friends, neighbors, church, and family. He points to Christy, in particular, as vital to his recuperation and later success, pulling more than her weight at home when he was recovering.
The couple have been married 26 years.
For her part, Christy is thankful to have such an excellent role model for their daughters, now 16 and 21. She is proud of her husband’s military service and was not surprised he summoned even greater strength and determination after his devastating injuries.
Surgeons rebuilt his face, but it was Master Sgt. Mittman, with his family’s help, who rebuilt his life.
The key, he decided, was an advanced degree. He had a business degree from Troy University in Alabama.
“But with my injuries, I felt the more education I had, the better my chances for employment would be.”
Mittman was addressing a group of Indianapolis veterans in 2008, and Beck Hannaford, MA ’90, happened to be there. Now retired, Hannaford was then Veterans Affairs coordinator for Ball State. He introduced himself and encouraged Mittman to enroll.
After learning more about Ball State and its award-winning disability services, Mittman never seriously considered another school. From 2009 to 2011, he earned a master’s degree in executive development and public service, offered by Teachers College through Ball State Online. All the while, he was working full time and helping raise a family.
Mittman and Hannaford collaborated with Carlos Taylor, adaptive computer technology specialist at Ball State, to digitize Mittman’s textbooks and find other technologies to help him learn.
“Enabling students with disabilities is one of the most important things we do,” Hannaford said.
Another chance encounter with a Ball State representative prompted Mittman to pursue a second degree. Jennifer Bott, then-dean of Miller College of Business, introduced herself at an event and encouraged him to get an MBA.
The math and statistics courses were especially difficult. Mittman couldn’t work out problems with pencil and paper. Even with adaptive technologies, his blindness slowed him. Sometimes, he studied through the night and went to work the next morning without sleep.
“But, because of the Army, he was used to being up for long hours at a time and working on very little sleep,” Christy said. “He puts his mind to something, and he just does it.”
“It’s like anything else you learn in the military,” he said. “When you have an obstacle, you have to go around it, through it, or over it.”
The national unemployment rate for people who are blind or visually impaired is a staggering 70 percent. Bosma tackles this unemployment problem two ways.
First, it offers rehabilitation services to help people adjust to vision loss. This includes mobility training, computer training, and more. Bosma then works with Indiana employers to find jobs for its graduates. In 2018, Bosma’s rehabilitation programs served more than 800 Hoosiers.
Second, Bosma runs its own warehousing and packaging business, primarily for surgical and examination gloves. Bosma employees package more than a half billion gloves per year for Veterans Affairs hospitals.
Bosma has 700 customers and employs 220 people, more than half of whom have vision loss.
“Our workers who are blind or visually impaired are working side by side with those who are sighted,” Mittman said. “They are integrated throughout the programs. It’s about upward mobility.”
After retiring from the Army in 2011, he started his civilian career at the National Institutes for the Blind.
Then, in 2012, he moved to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, a Defense Department agency with offices in Indianapolis. In six years, he worked his way up from public affairs specialist to executive officer.
Bosma hired him as its COO in July 2018. Within seven months, it announced he would become CEO, effective Aug. 1.
Bosma’s Lise Pace, who served on the executive search committee, called Mittman a game-changer.
“He represents a paradigm shift, where qualified individuals with disabilities are represented in greater numbers at the very highest level.”
Mittman just wants the world to know that people who are blind or visually impaired are as effective as anyone else.
“When we send you an email, you have no idea that person is blind or visually impaired,” he said. “If I can be the CEO of an organization this size, what makes you think you can’t do business with someone like me?”