BVA Issues Cross Oceans, Continents

by Tom Miller

In my capacity as BVA Executive Director I had yet another marvelous opportunity to attend a meeting of the International Congress of War Blind Organizations (IKK) at St. Dunstan’s British Rehabilitation Center for the War Blind in Ovingdean, England. The conference took place October 21-25, 2006.

The IKK General Assembly meets every three years. The 2006 gathering was the 13th of its kind and represented the third time I was able to participate. It was also the third time that the conference was hosted by St. Dunstan’s in the United Kingdom. In all, 11 countries were represented: Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Poland, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and the United States.

Ray Hazan has served as President of IKK for the past nine years and does a wonderful job of hosting these conferences. He also is the President of St. Dunstan’s, the United Kingdom’s comprehensive rehabilitation center for British war blind and former servicemen and women.

Located near Brighton, St. Dunstan’s was founded after World War I and is an incredible facility. In addition to operating a comprehensive residential blind rehabilitation program, the facility has nursing home beds, assistive living apartments, respite care, and a full range of recreational programs and events. The facility even has a pub so the blinded servicemen and women don’t have far to go if they drink too much!

In addition to the above programs housed within the facility, St. Dunstan’s has a conference room/center that is fully equipped with translation services. Attending an IKK meeting may be compared to attending one at the United Nations. Each delegate has a headset and is able to hear all of the speeches and discussions in his/her own language.

Participants arrived on Saturday, October 21. The following day, as the group attempted to adjust to jet lag, we traveled to a war memorial in Brighton and participated in a wreath laying ceremony. Unfortunately, a rather heavy rain began just as President Hazan and his vice presidents approached the memorial to lay the wreath. The Mayor of Brighton, who was in attendance, made a few remarks. In the afternoon we had an opportunity to experience the recreational activities offered at St. Dunstan’s, i.e. archery, rifle shooting, and darts.

The official meeting commenced on Monday. Delegates reported on programs, services, and pensions for which the war blind are eligible in their respective countries. Interestingly, the United States and England are the only countries that offer substantial benefits and services for blinded and visually impaired service personnel.

All of the other countries represented are experiencing considerable attrition in their organizations. They continue to be strictly war blind organizations whose last combat war was World War II. The United States and England have made provisions to include veterans who have lost their vision following their military service.

Following reports from each delegation, Dr. Gerry Clare, a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps and an ophthalmologist, made a special presentation. Dr. Clare focused on the nature of modern eye injuries. He went into considerable scientific detail about how vision works and how traumatic injuries and the disease process interfere with visual systems. He also discussed technology and the future of vision treatments. His belief, he said, is that advancements in treatments would come from stem cell research.

I had been asked in advance to follow Dr. Clare’s presentation with a discussion on U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to provide the numbers of eye casualties that are occurring in both conflicts. While Dr. Clare had reported that he was unaware of a single British soldier losing his sight in Iraq, I was obviously unable to make the same assertion. The two of us engaged in a discussion about visual disturbances and the problems associated with Traumatic Brain Injuries, which is now the “signature injury” of OIF service personnel.

On Tuesday, we conducted the business of IKK. This included debates on and adoption of amendments to the IKK constitution and resolutions using procedures similar to those we practice at BVA national conventions. Elections were also held. President Hazan announced that he did not want to run again for the same office. Italo Frioni of Italy was then elected President. Hazan did, however, agree to serve as First Vice President. Two other Vice Presidents were elected: Dieter Renelt of Germany, and myself, representing the United States. Our terms cover the next three years.

Attending these meetings serves to remind me once again of just how fortunate we are in this country. Even stating it conservatively, the benefits and services to which we have access are amazing compared to what other countries do for their blinded and visually impaired veterans. Although Bulletin readers may remember that I have mentioned this impression in reports of the two previous conferences I attended, the point was driven home to me to an even greater extent this time.

The primary purpose of IKK is to bring international pressure on countries to do more for their veterans. It is also important to note that an objective of some of the national organizations, especially those in the European countries, is the securing of benefits and services for civilians blinded as a result of war.

It appears at this time that the next IKK meeting will be held in Italy in 2009. Representing BVA at the IKK Congress is just one more wonderful opportunity and honor that is afforded to me as the Association’s Executive Director.

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