Activity, Intensity Highlight BVA’s 64th

by Stuart Nelson

The “one helluva ball” and temperate northwestern climate promised last year by 64th National Convention Co-Chairman Frank Armstrong most assuredly came true as blinded veterans, their families, and friends totaling 261 gathered in downtown Portland August 18-22 for a fast-paced week of convention activity.

The informative business and technology sessions, election of new national officers, approximately 40 exhibitors, and host of recreational and social activities were key ingredients to the final product that made Frank’s prediction a reality.

Meeting simultaneously down the hall of the Doubletree Hotel-Lloyd Center was an even larger gathering of 324 VA BRS employees, including VIST Coordinators and BROS who were present for their annual conference.

Portland Draws Rave Reviews

 

“I think having a convention in Portland was definitely all it was cracked up to be,” remarked Howard Boteilho of San Francisco, California. “We’ve all had a great time in a beautiful, comfortable place that will be hard to match in the future.”

Such seemed to be the consensus mindset among this year’s convention contingency as many ventured out of the Doubletree to enjoy lush gardens, a vibrant downtown area with free light-rail transportation to and from the hotel, the nearby tax-free Lloyd Center Mall, or the BVA-sponsored trips to Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum and PGE Park.

Shinseki Vows Strong VA-BVA Partnership

 

“We only have one mission—to care for our nation’s veterans wherever they live,” asserted VA Secretary Shinseki in his Opening Business Session address.

Accompanied on the podium platform by Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski and Senator Ron Wyden, Secretary Shinseki said that to provide the highest quality benefits and services possible, VA must do so faster, better, and more equitably.

A record 600-plus BVA convention attendees, VA employees, and reporters crowded into the Doubletree’s Lloyd Center Ballroom for the Opening Business Session.
A record 600-plus BVA convention attendees, VA employees, and reporters crowded into the Doubletree’s Lloyd Center Ballroom for the Opening Business Session.

VA’s legacy of service is an unwavering pursuit of President Lincoln’s charge to care for those who have borne the battle,” he said. “These words are as compelling for us today as when they were first delivered during Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.”

Besides explaining his own long-term vision and the more immediate priorities and initiatives for the Department (see Legislative Update) in keeping with Lincoln’s declaration, Secretary Shinseki also pointed to BVA’s role and responsibility in continuing to lift the nation’s blinded veterans to more elevated heights.”

“There is legitimacy to your voices that is different from everyone else’s,” he said. “Your field service program, your scholarships, your volunteers, regional groups, and legislative advocacy provide the bedrock for your support of blinded veterans and their families, and you can count on me to further our partnership and collaboration, VA’s and BVA’s, in solidifying that bedrock.”

OPS Extends Reach Outward and Upward

 

The convention hosted recently blinded U.S. service members and their guests for the fourth consecutive year, thanks to generous financial support from the Allergan Foundation, Health Net Federal Service, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, National Industries for the Blind, Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind, the American Optometric Association, Revision Eyewear, and Envision. Hosted by BVA this year were 11 service members and nine family members or friends.

Participants in Operation Peer Support were: Steve Baskis of Golconda Illinois; Scott Carruthers of Eden, Vermont; Douglas Cereghin of Salmon, Idaho; Mark Cobb of Murrieta, California; Ken Davis of Hillsboro, Oregon; Raymond Fleig of New Lisbon, Wisconsin; Sean Johnson of Aberdeen, South Dakota; Andrew Lessard of Coppers Cove, Texas; Alexander Perez of Tampa, Florida; Scott Thorne of Escondido, California; and A.J. Tong of Yelm, Washington.

Former participants returning to the convention on their own were Dave Kinney from Deland, Florida, and Travis Fugate from Hindman, Kentucky. Honorary BVA life membership status, which, according to Tom Miller has been the rarest of occurrences in BVA’s 64-year history, was conferred on the two returning Brits, Simon Brown of Morley, West Yorkshire, and Ben Shaw of Prestonpans, East Lothian. An attendee from last year, Craig Lundberg of Liverpool, was also granted honorary membership. The BVA Board of Directors took the action in their final business meeting Saturday afternoon.

Highlights of the week included informational sessions relating to education, rehabilitation, and employment. Four outstanding recreational activities were coordinated by Steve Beres and directed by Team River Runner (TRR) and the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA). Participants went kayaking on Monday and enjoyed a daylong Thursday river run courtesy of TRR. USABA hosted the rock climbing and tandem biking activities on Saturday.

Tom Zampieri presents rose bouquet to British native Alison Basher on behalf of Operation Peer Support participants at Father Carroll Luncheon as Tom Miller looks on.
Tom Zampieri presents rose bouquet to British native Alison Basher on behalf of Operation Peer Support participants at Father Carroll Luncheon as Tom Miller looks on.    

“We plan to invite all of our past OPS attendees to our convention in Washington next year,” said Tom Zampieri. “We hope that it can be a reunion of sorts and provide a greater opportunity to move the concept and practice of peer support to an even higher level.”

Britain’s own Alison Basher was employed at the Hyatt Regency in Phoenix last year when she met Simon, Ben, and Craig, who were attending the BVA 63rd National Convention. So much did she enjoy their company that she visited with Simon on a recent trip home to the United Kingdom and decided to register for the convention to spend time with him, Ben, and the rest of the OPS group.

Alison attended all of the OPS activities and helped with numerous logistical concerns. She was even pictured on a kayak in an Oregonian newspaper story. To show their gratitude to both Alison and Convention Manager Christina Hitchcock, OPS attendees presented each with a bouquet of red roses at the Father Carroll Luncheon.

Buck Knives Score

 

 

Retired Marine Graham Crutchfield, a Hayden, Idaho, resident and near neighbor of BVA Director of District 4 Dale Stamper, presented a commemorative Buck knife to each BVA member attending the convention, each participant in Operation Peer Support, and to Secretary Shinseki, Governor Kulongoski, and Senator Wyden.

The dignitaries and Operation Peer Support participants received their knives during the Wednesday Opening Business Session. Crutchfield remained in the Exhibit Hall all afternoon to hand out the knives to BVA members.

The purpose of the gift is to thank each veteran for his or her service to the nation.

Crutchfield has raised thousands of dollars from individuals, service clubs, and businesses to present the same knives to troops returning to Idaho from Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a program he began in 2005.

Charles T. “Chuck” Buck, CEO and Chairman of the Board of Buck Knives, Inc., supports the program wholeheartedly and offers the knives to Crutchfield at a deeply discounted price. He provided the following message with each knife:

“Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your service to our great country. We will never forget the sacrifices you each made to protect our freedom.”


Exhibitors Shine

 

Companies totaling 40 demonstrated their products at the 64th National Convention. The latest in exciting technology and aids for blinded veterans successfully drew BVA attendees and VA BRS professionals again this year.

The Exhibit Hall kicked off with a Monday evening wine and cheese reception. An additional visit to the Hall was added this year to encourage attendance from the local general public.

In addition to their exhibits, America’s Vet Dogs, Enhanced Vision, and LS&S Low-Vision Solutions also sponsored convention events. The Oregon Commission for the Blind also provided financial support.

Volunteers Again to the Rescue

 

At some point, words finally become inadequate and redundant in the expression of appreciation to those who give everything of themselves in service. Such is the case this year with the volunteer effort, organized and directed flawlessly yet again by Margarine Beaman.

There was, nonetheless, a little more substance to this year’s Margarine platitudes as the BVA Board of Directors moved to make her an honorary member of the Blinded Veterans Association in an action similar to that taken with the aforementioned British soldiers. The honor was announced at the Awards Banquet.

Special recognition is again due also to Assistant Convention Coordinator and Chief Troubleshooter Larry Martinez and to full-time volunteers Edgar Penaloza, Elena Martinez, Cora Stamper, Alicia Perry, Sam and Anita Ayoob, Lindsay Ruais, and Janeirah Jones.

Co-chair Frank Armstrong’s selection and marketing of the site to BVA members, coupled with years of behind-the-scenes planning and coordination, will be forever remembered.

Media Blitz

 

Thanks in large part to support from the National Industries for the Blind and some superhuman efforts behind the scenes, this year’s convention enjoyed the most robust of media coverage in recent memory and most likely ever.

Two articles were placed in Oregon’s largest daily newspaper, The Oregonian. They were supplemented by an online blog, a video, and an op-ed piece on the newspaper’s website. Other local newspaper stories included a placement in the weekly Portland Observer, the weekly Portland Tribune, and the Oregon Sentinel.

Three of the four local network affiliates sent reporters and camera crews to the Doubletree Hotel to cover the Opening Business Session. An Associated Press national reporter and two of its photographers were also onsite for the meeting. A host of local radio news personnel also attended. Later in the day CNN Radio conducted a telephone interview with Tom Zampieri and Operation Peer Support participants Travis Fugate and Steve Baskis.

The Portland Business Journal took information from a media advisory and made it an online story, which resulted in pick-ups on other sites. This included an op-ed in The Chicago Tribune and another story in MSN Money.

Family Magazine and Operation Homefront, both of which cover issues of concern to military families and returning veterans, interviewed other Operation Peer Support families. The National Defense Radio Program, produced by Veterans of Foreign Wars, followed up the convention a couple of weeks later with a 20-minute interview that included Tom Zampieri, A.J. Tong, and Sean Johnson. The interviews were broadcast and webcast on the program a couple of days later.

Board, Officers Sworn In

 

Elections for seven positions on the Board of Directors were recently opened, either at the convention or during the months leading up to the event. Five of the seven elections—for National President, National Treasurer, Director of District 1, Director of District 2, and a special election to fill the position of Director of District 6—did not have an opposing candidate.

The following National Officers were elected for a one-year term of office with an opportunity for re-election next year. The President was elected by one unanimous vote cast by National Secretary Ron White in the Closing Business Session.

President – Dr. Roy Kekahuna, Southern Nevada Regional Group
(unopposed) 
Vice President – Sam Huhn, Pennsylvania Regional Group
(opposed by Ronald White) 
Secretary – Mark Cornell, South Texas Regional Group
(opposed by Robert Mower)
Treasurer – Steve Beres, Michigan Regional Group
(unopposed)


District Directors elected for full three-year terms are:

Director of District 1 – David VanLoan, Connecticut Regional Group 
(unopposed)
Director of District 2 – Robert Campbell, Missouri Regional Group
(unopposed)
Director of District 6 – Roy Young, Greater Houston Regional Group
(special election for remainder of term, unopposed)


Sam Huhn resigned his position as Director of District 3 shortly after being elected National Vice President. The Board accordingly appointed Past National President Neil Applebyof the Pennsylvania Regional Group as the Interim Director. The regularly scheduled election for this position will be held in the spring of 2010.

The National Board of Directors also re-appointed The Reverend Neftali Sanchez of the Silver State Regional Group for his 31st consecutive year as National Chaplain and George Hicks of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Group as this year’s National Sergeant-At-Arms. The Board also appointed Joe Burns of the Louisiana Regional Group as an Honorary Member of the Board for his expertise in the area of finances.

Newly elected National Treasurer Steve Beres served in the U.S. Army as a Special Operations Officer, including numerous tours in the Middle East. He also worked as a Police Sergeant with City of Milwaukee until becoming totally blind due to a traumatic impact injury to his face in 2002. He was retired from both careers due to the nature of the injuries.

Prior to losing his sight, Steve earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice Administration. He later obtained a Masters Degree in Education and a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy. He presently works for VA as a career field intern at the Visual Impairment Services Outpatient Rehabilitation program in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Steve joined BVA following his service and injury in the Middle East. As an Association member, he believes he has found a mission he can believe in: assisting fellow blinded veterans to the greatest extent and by every means possible.

Bylaws and Resolutions Considered, Approved

 

Voting members of BVA and regional group delegates in attendance approved one bylaw amendment and 27 total resolutions.

On Wednesday, the Bylaws and Resolutions Committee considered 47 resolutions and recommended that the first 25, still pending from last year, be passed as a block. An additional 19 resolutions were withdrawn or eliminated at that time. The Committee recommended that three additional resolutions be passed with the block of 25.

The Convention floor approved the block and two of the three newly proposed resolutions.

Kekahuna, Case, and Lester All Honored

 

In addition to his election as National President, Dr. Roy Kekahuna was this year’s recipient of the Melvin J. Maas Award for Professional Achievement. Roy has lived a distinguished life filled with a long list of continuous educational and professional achievements, all while overcoming multiple combat disabilities and years of intensive rehabilitation during extended paths to physical recovery.

Roy is a native Hawaiian, having been born in Honolulu. At age 18, he enlisted in the United States Army as a Private E-1. While in the military, Roy spent most of his time with the Special Forces (Green Berets). He also had tours with the 82nd Airborne Division, the STRAC Army Sky Diving Team, the 101st Airborne Division, and the 173rd Airborne Brigade, compiling more than 6,000 static line and free fall jumps with these organizations.

As an Army Major, Roy was injured by a booby trap in June 1967 in which he suffered multiple wounds, including loss of the use of his left arm and total loss of vision. He also experienced multiple fragment wounds to the stomach, groin, chest, right arm, and face. He was medically retired in 1971 with five tours in Vietnam and five Purple Hearts after spending four years in physical rehab and undergoing 43 surgical procedures.

Roy later regained some functional vision in one eye, which lasted until 1988 when he became legally blind in that same eye.

Using the skills and determination he learned in the Army, Roy moved forward as he blazed a trail of personal achievements, including completion of a blind rehabilitation course at the Hawaii State Rehabilitation Center, VA blind rehab at the Central Blind Rehabilitation Center at Hines, two Bachelors Degrees, two Masters Degrees, and two Doctorates.

Roy is currently the Chief of Voluntary Services with the VA Southern Nevada Health Care System. He also has 15 years of government service and experience with DoD and five years as a Sales Trainer with Sun Life of Canada. As a volunteer, he has spent 39 years with Veterans Helping Veterans, six years as a BVA District Director, and one year working at a BVA volunteer office.

Roy first learned about BVA in 1993 when he moved from Hawaii to San Diego. VIST Coordinator Bob Kozel invited him to attend a San Diego Regional Group meeting. He there found out that many blinded veterans were seeking assistance from VA. Roy is also a life member of six additional national VSOs.

Bill Case, the 2009 winner of the Irving Diener Award for outstanding service to his regional group, founded the Rio Grande Regional Group in 2000 with just 44 members. Since then, his passion and leadership skills have brought the group through numerous good and bad times, helped it win awards and recognition, and made it an exemplary regional group that furthers BVA’s work and mission nationally.

The members of Bill’s regional group have recognized the sincerity of his actions on their behalf by voting unanimously to nominate him for the award.

Bill has logged more than 14,000 volunteer hours as a credentialed Veterans Service Officer. During 2004 alone, he completed more than 30 Combat-Related Special Compensation claims for veterans.

A native of Mississippi and reared there during the Great Depression, Bill has always been a person of great energy and quick to help the less fortunate. He first joined the U.S. Army in June 1947 at the age of 16. After two tours in Vietnam, he retired in 1971 with more than 20 years of honorable service.

The David L. Schnair Volunteer Service Award winner was Ron Lester of the Southern Arizona Regional Group. Ron has made a significant and long-lasting impact on the lives of the hundreds of veterans he has served. He has combined high personal standards and dedicated service with a thorough, practical knowledge of the VA system and how to truly help fellow veterans.

Since June 2008, Ron has spent 40-60 hours weekly in referring more than 140 blinded veterans for nonservice-connected pension, housebound aid and attendance, or service connection for disability. Many of the veterans referred have already received their benefits.

“The veterans include not only my local veterans but all those attending the Southwestern Blind Rehabilitation Center,” said VIST Coordinator David Clarke. “He has also screened many additional veterans, resulting in the completion of local needs assessments that can be used to prioritize our legally blinded veterans for VA outpatient services and community services.”

Ron’s listening skills, knowledge of the VA system, and sensitivity to the issues of visual impairment after 30 years without sight himself have all made him an indispensable asset to both the rehab center as well as the VIST. He is also a dedicated regional group president, newsletter editor, support group participant, and pastor.

2009 Certificates of Appreciation

 

BVA honored the following two VA employees with 2009 Certificates of Appreciation at the Friday Father Carol Luncheon:

Janet Cichoracki
Recreational Therapist
VA Medical Center
Boise, Idaho

Paul D. Whitten
Director
Augusta Blind Rehabilitation Center
Augusta, Georgia


Regional Groups Go Extra Mile

 

The Awards Banquet was highlighted by the delivery of two honorary gavels to BVA regional groups. The gavels represent the groups’ exceptional results in their attempts to increase membership during FY 2009. The winners were:

Gold Gavel Award
Florida Regional Group
(largest numerical increase—82 new members)

Silver Gavel Award 
Spokane Inland Empire Regional Group
(largest percentage member increase—.29 percent)


Terry King was present to accept the Gold Gavel for Florida while Robert Barbley accepted the Silver Gavel for Spokane Inland Empire.

Gagliano Outlines VCE Obstacles

 

“The new Vision Center of Excellence, or VCE, is unlike any organization that has existed before, so you can perhaps understand the challenges involved in getting something like this started,” said VCE Director Colonel Donald A. Gagliano in his Friday afternoon Father Carroll Luncheon address.

In addition to paying tribute to Father Carroll’s role in advancing the cause of blind rehabilitation in the late 1940s and early 50s, Colonel Gagliano chronicled the bureaucratic delays and ensuing newspaper articles claiming that veterans with eye injuries had been “let down” as a result of the delays.

“There were differences between the authorizing documents and the appropriating documents,” he said. “So, VCE, in the confusion of words, became an unfunded requirement, which in Washington is equivalent to a kiss of death.”

OIF veteran Alexander Perez, left, receives Braille flag from Tom Zampieri and Norman Jones at special presentation during Father Carroll Luncheon.
OIF veteran Alexander Perez, left, receives Braille flag from Tom Zampieri and Norman Jones at special presentation during Father Carroll Luncheon.

Colonel Gagliano then rehearsed some of the positive, almost miraculous events associated with VCE’s development since he reported as Director last April 1 and what he sees as the agency’s potential in vision research and the treatment of eye injuries. He credited BVA’s advocacy for much of the action that has finally lifted VCE off the ground.

“I thank you for establishing and communicating the need for VCE at this highest of levels,” he said. “Together, we will make this a success and together we will make a difference; that, I can promise you today.”