Blinded Vets Bask in Phoenix Warmth 

by Stuart Nelson


“We have brought them here to be our guests and to hopefully inspire them to pursue higher possibilities, but what has happened is the exact opposite—they have lifted and inspired us ,” said Tom Miller as he welcomed BVA convention attendees and many VA BRS employees to the Tuesday evening President’s Reception.

Tom was referring specifically to the 14 Operation Iraqi Freedom service members from throughout the United States and the United Kingdom who had recently lost their vision and who were attending the convention with a spouse, parent, or sibling.

“Having listened to their stories last night, I can attest to their courage and spirit of determination to move forward with their lives in the face of considerable adversity,” he continued. “I hope all of us will make a special effort to get acquainted with them this week.”

Tom’s remarks and a subsequent welcome by Norman Jones set the tone for an activity-filled and sometimes emotional BVA 63rd National Convention. During the same remarks, Tom announced that he had learned of Sid Ordway’s passing just moments prior to the reception.

A total of 288 individuals registered for and attended the convention, of which 140 were BVA members. An additional 91 individual exhibitors in 45 booths and 28 presenters were also present for at least a portion of the week. The gathering was without regular attendees such as Bob Routh and Larry Grant, who passed away during the past year. Otis and Elizabeth Scott; General and Sheila Weeks; and Bill and Betty Orr were also missed. Many of the BVA faithful also asked about twice-proclaimed BVA Sweetheart Dawna Johnson, who was recovering from recent surgery.

James Camper, Illinois Regional Group, and wife, Velma, enjoy the scenery and cooler temperatures that convention attendees enjoyed during Thursday trip to Sedona. Photo courtesy of Lottie Davis.
James Camper, Illinois Regional Group, and wife, Velma, enjoy the scenery and cooler temperatures that convention attendees enjoyed during Thursday trip to Sedona. Photo courtesy of Lottie Davis.

Operation Peer Support Blazes Yet New Trails

 

The Convention hosted 11 U.S. service members recently blinded in Iraq as part of BVA’s three-year-old Operation Peer Support initiative. The BVA family also began a new tradition in welcoming three of their counterparts from the United Kingdom as special guests.

The service members and one guest companion from “across the pond” spent two days in Washington, DC, prior to their trip to Phoenix. Hosted by BVA Director of Government Relations Tom Zampieri, the tour began with welcoming visits at the British Embassy and the office of DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. They then visited and ate lunch at the National Headquarters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars followed by stops at Arlington National Cemetery, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and many of the memorials and monuments of the Nation’s Capital.

“It was another rewarding convention week and a step forward in our efforts to connect OIF and OEF service members who have recently lost their vision with our blinded veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, said Tom Zampieri. “This year we were able to come up with more activities and opportunities for interaction than ever before.”

Operation Peer Support activities in Phoenix included all of the major convention business, instructional sessions, and social functions in addition to group-specific meetings on education, employment, and technology. Participants also attended a clinic coordinated by U.S. Association of Blind Athletes Executive Director Mark Lucas and instructed by Paralympic athletes Jennifer Armbruster and Tim Willis. The clinic focused on the sport of goalball and sighted-guide competitive running. Following the clinic, they toured a newly-constructed warehouse and office building of Arizona Industries for the Blind.

Sergeant 1st Class and Operation Peer Support participants  Dexter Durrante jokes with USABA Executive Director Mark Lucas  during guided running clinic.
Sergeant 1st Class and Operation Peer Support participants Dexter Durrante jokes with USABA Executive Director Mark Lucas during guided running clinic.

“Our greatest desire is that the Operation Peer Support initiative provide the means by which those who have experienced loss of vision recently can connect with both one another and also with those who traveled the same challenging road years ago,” said Tom Zampieri. “We hope that this year we took advantage of the unique opportunity to strengthen the bonds of friendship with our brothers in Great Britain—to whom we as Americans owe so much for their support and sacrifice in time of war.”

U.S. participants were Mark Strand of Mesa, Arizona; Matthew Slaydon of Avondale, Arizona; Jerry Abney of Miami, Florida; David Kinney of Deland, Florida; Steve Baskis of Golconda, Illinois; Matthew Locricchio of Clinton Township, Michigan; Dexter Durrante of Fayetteville, North, Carolina; Gilbert Magallanes of Clarksville, Tennessee; Alan Babin of Round Rock, Texas; and Matthew Bradford of Mosinee, Wisconsin; and Matthew Mogi of San Diego, California.

Participants from the United Kingdom were Simon Brown of Morley, West Yorkshire; Craig Lundberg of Liverpool; and Ben Shaw of Linburn.

Operation Peer Support activities have been made possible by the generous support of several corporations and individuals. At the top of this year’s list of supporters are Health Net, National Industries for the Blind, Genentech, and the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Peake Visits with Servicemen, Speaks at Opening Session

 

“Care for blind and visually impaired veterans fits absolutely into the context of our priority patients,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. James B. Peake in his keynote address at the convention’s opening business session.

“This includes those with service-connected disabilities, those with special needs, and those who might otherwise fall through the safety net that is now established to locate and help many like you who are in the audience today,” Secretary Peake credited technological advances and their integration into new systems of care for doing more than simply adding some convenience to a veteran’s life.

“These are more than tools,” he said. “They constitute life changes that make the slogan ‘be all you can be’ more than just a slogan but a reality for many veterans.”

He also praised the individuals who help make such life changes possible. “What a great experience to see the dedication and the caring of our professionals up close and personal, and to hear from the veterans themselves of how these professionals are making a difference in their lives.”

Secretary Peake also met privately and spoke personally with each Operation Peer Support participant and accompanying family member prior to his speech.

Following the address, on behalf of BVA, Past National President Neil Appleby presented Dr. Kara Gagnon with a plaque of appreciation for her dedicated, compassionate help to blinded veterans at the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Center over a period of 13 years. Neil emphasized Dr. Gagnon’s leadership in the area of Traumatic Brain Injury and its visual consequences.

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon and The Honorable Arizona Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Ryan, a medically retired, combat-disabled Vietnam veteran himself, then welcomed convention attendees to Phoenix.

Exhibitor Totals Surpass Previous High

Barry Greenblatt of Maxi-Aids gives white cane demonstration  to Dr. Roy Kekahuna in Convention Exhibit Hall.
Barry Greenblatt of Maxi-Aids gives white cane demonstration  to Dr. Roy Kekahuna in Convention Exhibit Hall.

A record 45 companies featuring the latest in exciting technology and aids for blinded veterans exhibited their products at the BVA 63rd National Convention. Many of them also offered financial support for a number of convention functions.

“Our exhibitors have always been a vital component of our convention and it is especially significant that they are here at the same time as VA’s BRS conference,” said Tom Miller.

New Possibilities Envisioned at Friday Forum Sessions

 

Four separate educational sessions relating to emerging technology and cutting-edge resources for blinded veterans comprised the Friday morning agenda.

“I’m hearing things we never would have dreamed of even a short time ago, which makes these forums the best-kept secret of our conventions,” said Jack Shapiro, New York Regional Group. “If our members came to the conventions just to hear the fascinating advances in science, technology, and what is now available to us, it would still be well worth their time and money.”

Pollock Stirs Carroll Luncheon

 

“I’m very grateful for Father Carroll’s book (Blindness: What It Is, What It Does, and How to Live with It) because, as a nurse, we don’t get much exposure to people who are blind or visually impaired and don’t know much about them,” she said. “I’m appalled by this and hope to make a difference in changing this phenomenon in the future.”

General Pollock related her role in helping the Department of Defense recognize and account for a larger than previously acknowledged number of combat eye injuries occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan. She also mentioned her passion for the establishment of an eye trauma center of excellence and BVA’s role in the legislation that will eventually bring about its inception.

“You need to know that there are very, very committed men and women across all of the services who are working on this and many other issues affecting vision and who would really like to push the edge of the envelope,” she said. “There is work going on but, as an impatient person, I’m looking at all of the other things going on out there in the world that hold even greater possibilities.”

General Pollock also outlined some of her most significant life experiences at a young age that motivated her: first, to become an Army nurse; second, to never back down when there is opposition; and, third, to possess the passion she now has about issues related to vision.

“Too many people with vision impairment retreat from the world and, as a result, the world doesn’t see them, she said. “Until the world knows that our issues even exist, we are not going to make good progress.”

General Pollock challenged the convention body to confront and teach those who are often afraid to interact with the blind and visually impaired because they do not know how to do so.

“I am going to challenge all of you to continue to be out there, to be vocal, and to be visible to those who can’t even imagine what your lives are like.”

Following the speech, Steve Matthews presented Robie MacLaughlin, Massachusetts Regional Group, with a plaque of appreciation for his four years of voluntary service as the Region I Field Service Representative in Boston. His assistant, Jan Cormier, was also recognized for outstanding service.

Delegates Elect Officers, Approve Bylaws and Resolutions

 

Voting members of BVA and regional group delegates in attendance approved two bylaw amendments and 44 total resolutions.

On Wednesday, the Bylaws and Resolutions Committee considered 47 resolutions and recommended that the first 38, still pending from last year, be passed as a block. An additional nine resolutions were considered in greater detail by both the Committee and by the general membership at the Closing Business Session. Six of the nine resolutions passed and were added to the 38 approved as a block, totaling 44.

Elections for six positions on the Board of Directors were held either during the months leading up to the convention or at the convention itself. All six of the elections—for National President, National Vice President, National Secretary, National Treasurer, and Directors of Districts 5 and 6—had a single candidate. Each one ran unopposed.

District Directors elected for full three-year terms were:

Director of District 5—Dr. George Stocking 
Florida Regional Group
Director of District 6—Mark Cornell 
South Texas Regional Group 


National Officers elected for one-year terms were:

President—Dr. Norman Jones, Jr. 
Georgia Regional Group
Vice President—Dr. Roy Kekahuna 
Silver State Regional Group
Secretary—Ron White 
New York Regional Group
Treasurer—Mark Cornell 
South Texas Regional Group


The election of Mark Cornell as National Treasurer created a vacancy in the directorship for District 6. The National Board of Directors accordingly appointed Roy Young of Trinity, Texas, as the interim Director of District 6. The Board also appointed David VanLoan of Moosup, Connecticut, as the interim Director of District 1.

Additionally, the National Board of Directors re-appointed Reverend Neftali Sanchez of the Silver State Regional Group for his 30th year of service as BVA National Chaplain andCharlotte Noddin of the Oregon Columbia Regional Group as the National Sergeant-at-Arms.

Young Garners Maas and Diener Awards

 

Roy E. Young made BVA history as the first blinded veteran ever to receive both the Major General Melvin J. Maas Award for Professional Achievement and the Irving Diener Award in the same year.

A Vietnam veteran, Roy was nominated for both awards for having dedicated every aspect of his life to helping others during the past dozen-plus years.

In historic BVA first, Roy Young, Greater Houston Regional Group, juggles both the Maas and Diener plaques during the 63rd National Convention Awards Banquet.
In historic BVA first, Roy Young, Greater Houston Regional Group, juggles both the Maas and Diener plaques during the 63rd National Convention Awards Banquet.

Roy’s accomplishments and service to blinded veterans as a man of both action and compassion comprise a list that seems endless. The list is filled with act after selfless act, many of which grew into major campaigns, projects, and events that required months and even years of organization and coordination before they fully blossomed.

Such activities include an outreach program that features exhibits, Gumbo cook-offs, Lions Club turkey shoots, motorcycle rallies, auto races, NASCAR rides, picnics, gifts from local professional sports teams, parade participation, mammoth Christmas parties, advocacy efforts to bring a new VA rehabilitation program to Houston, development of relationships with the local media, and a special focus on service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.   

Hazel Powell Honored

 

“There is no way to measure the amount of effort and positive effect that Hazel Powell has had on the Northern Arizona Regional Group, both in its daily operations and from a long-range perspective,” wrote current Regional Group President Karen Oswald.

An active Auxiliary member for 15 years, Hazel was most recently the president of the regional group Auxiliary, a past National President of BVAA, and elected again as National President at the 63rd Convention.

“As a support to her late husband, Harold ‘Doc’ Powell, as he fulfilled the responsibilities of his position as NARG president, this convention here in Phoenix is the fulfillment of a dream both of them had,” said Tom Miller as he introduced Hazel as the 2008 David L. Schnair Award Volunteer Service Award recipient.

Hazel has inspired not only blinded veterans but all who have witnessed her spirited perseverance. She was instrumental in securing office space for the regional group in the eye clinic at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center. She then made certain that the space was occupied by adequate staff and supplied with sufficient resource materials, even it meant that she and Doc would spend hours far beyond their fair share at the facility.

Regional Group Recognition Reflects Commitment, Sacrifice

 

Norman Jones praised, congratulated, and handed off honorary gavels to two BVA regional groups at the Awards Banquet. The gavels awarded represent the groups’ exceptional results in their attempts to increase membership. The winners are:

2008 Gold Gavel Award

Rio Grande Regional Group
(largest numerical increase—62 new members)

2008 Silver Gavel Award
San Diego Regional Group
(largest percentage member increase—9.2 percent)


Bill Case was on hand to accept the Gold Gavel for the Rio Grande Regional Group and Bill Montgomery accepted the Silver Gavel for the San Diego Regional Group.

Volunteers Perform Yeoman Service

 

What and where would a BVA National Convention be without Margarine Beaman?

Oops, perhaps better not to even contemplate an answer to that question or to imagine how the event would come together without the kindest, most personable volunteer who returns year after year. She is the one volunteer who insists on 24-hour shifts for seven consecutive days, who serves as the convention lost and found, concierge, bank, personal confidant, secretary, phone operator, elevator operator, security guard, tour guide, meteorologist, meal hostess, and more.

BVA thanks Margarine for another amazing performance by a corps of effective volunteers. Special recognition is again extended to Assistant Convention Coordinator and Chief Troubleshooter Larry Martinez and to Elena Martinez, Renee Johnson, Cora Stamper, Alicia Perry, and Anita Ayoob for their work at the registration desk. Sam Ayoob was again impeccable in the Hospitality Suite while Gulf War blinded veteran Don Overton provided special assistance to Operation Peer Support.

Co-chairs Mike Kanitsch and Karen Oswald, supported by Tom Hicks and Norene Spar, deserve extra kudos for the mostly-behind-the-scenes planning they did for the better part of two years.

Sweepstakes Prizes Gladden 63rd Winners

 

One of the distinguishing features of this year’s sweepstakes drawing at the end of the convention Awards Banquet was that none of the four winners, all male, were actually present to hear their names announced. If they didn’t receive the news through the grapevine shortly thereafter, they did receive a congratulatory telephone call from Tom Miller a few days later.

The grand prize sweepstakes winner was BVA member Lawrence Freeman, a Vietnam War era veteran from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Lawrence received approximately $4,300 in winnings, or 50 percent of the prize pool.

Second prize went to Henry Spence of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Henry won some $2,100, which was 25 percent of the prize pool.

The third-place winner was Clifford McGilvrey, a World War II veteran and resident of San Antonio, Texas. Clifford collected $1,300, or approximately 15 percent of the prize pool. Clifford’s lucky ticket was not a first for him. He also took fourth-placed proceeds at the 60th National Convention in Miami Beach just three years ago.

Larry Hall of Augusta, Georgia, was the name drawn for fourth place. His winnings were approximately 10 percent of the prize pool, amounting to about $800.

Upcoming Gatherings on BVA’s Horizon

 

Mark your calendars for the 64th National Convention at the Doubletree Hotel in Portland, Oregon, August 18-22, 2009. According to Oregon Columbia Regional Group President and Convention Chair Frank Armstrong, the group is working feverishly on fundraising and social activities to make the event both enjoyable and affordable.

“It is going to be one helluva ball,” he said, “and it won’t cost our members an arm and a leg either. We are planning and arranging things that will make this a one-of-a-kind convention that no one will want to pass up.”

Frank referred to the Lloyd Center, the largest covered mall west of the Mississippi River and located directly across the street from the Doubletree. The Center, he explained, features more than 200 shops, movie theaters, and eateries, and is one of countless shopping stops in which convention attendees can take advantage of Portland’s “no sales tax” law.

Also within short walking distance of the hotel are the Rose Garden Arena, the Portland Convention Center, and Memorial Coliseum. Nearby attractions are the Riverplace Esplanade, Washington Park Zoo, and The Pearl Historical District.

The 15-floor, 476-room Doubletree offers views of the city skyline or the Cascade Mountains. It houses a well-equipped fitness facility, wheelchair access throughout, a tennis court, and a full-service business center. Also on the property are two restaurants: Multnomah Grille (American cuisine and Northwest specialties) and Eduardo’s Mexican Grill and Cantina. Room amenities include refrigerator, mini-bar, and free newspaper.

Doubletree rates for the gathering will be $106 plus a 12.5 percent room tax that brings the total per night to $119.25. There is a free hotel shuttle to and from the single-terminal airport and for trips within a five-mile radius of the Doubletree. The MAX light rail system is also available from the airport and for trips throughout the area. Parking per day will be $9 with in/out privileges.

Delegates to the 63rd National Convention voted to select Washington, DC, as the city in which BVA will commemorate its 65th year of service to blinded veterans. The Puerto Rico Regional Group had also submitted a bid to host the anniversary convention.

Dates and hotel for the 65th gathering will be August 24-28, 2010 at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in nearby Arlington, Virginia. The hotel is located some three miles across the Potomac River from the Nation’s Capital, less than five miles from BVA National Headquarters, and about a mile-and-a half from Arlington National Cemetery.