Wisconsin Group Effective in Promoting Awareness
The Wisconsin Regional Group, or Blinded Veterans Association of Wisconsin (BVAWI) as the group is officially named, was recently recognized by local media for its collaboration with the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired. BVAWI has an official delegate, Regional Group President Gary Traynor, who represents the group on the Council.
According to Gary, a momentous occasion in the history of the collaboration occurred during a May 15 seminar at the renowned Wisconsin Veterans Home at King. BVA represented the Council in presenting Lieutenant Colonel William Crawley (U.S. Marine Corp, Ret.), Commandant of the Veterans Home, with the Outstanding Public Service Award for his many years of service to veterans.
In addition to the resulting media attention, having a delegate on the Council has also benefited the group by extending its outreach through public speaking opportunities at various Council seminars. In such a forum, blinded veterans are located and informed of their VA benefits. In two cases, the recently discovered veterans are now serving as officers in the regional group.
BVAWI is also taking the final steps to secure delegate representation on the 24-member Wisconsin Council on Veterans Programs, which consists almost entirely of nonprofit veterans organizations. The application process is a time-consuming one that started last fall with an in-depth application and interview at a public forum.
The original encouragement for BVAWI to join the Council came from State VA Secretary John Socos, who informed Gary of the opportunities and benefits that could accrue to the regional group if accepted for membership. Socos also told Gary that the Council provides valuable input to his agency regarding veterans issues and benefits. He said that the state’s blinded veterans would thus have a greater voice in state veterans policy.
In the last stage of the acceptance process, Wisconsin State Senator Kathleen Vineholt and Representative Jeff Smith sponsored bills on Wisconsin State Legislation Day on June 3 that will eventually admit the group to the Council on Veterans Programs. A delegate from the regional group will then serve on the Council for a one-year term.
On hand at the Capitol in Madison for Legislation Day, BVAWI also sponsored two booths. One booth was run by Zablocki VA Medical Center VIST Coordinator Leon Haith and his staff. The other was manned by Gary, BVA Region IV Field Service Representative Bob Malak, and BVAWI member Chris Quinn.
Gary exhorts other regional groups to organize themselves so that they become an attractive partner to sister organizations and then to seek out other established groups and associations, such as State Councils of the Blind and Councils on Veterans Programs, to determine if collaboration and joint efforts could be mutually beneficial.
“We’ve found that representation and working with state and local organizations can bring some magnificent and often unexpected positive results for blinded veterans in a given area,” he said. “We highly recommend it to all BVA regional groups nationwide.”
New Jersey Commission Spotlights Blinded Vet
Joseph Ruffalo, Jr. was one of six individuals singled out for recognition July 16 by the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the New Jersey State Talking Book and Braille Center, and the Trenton Thunder Double-A baseball team.
A resident of Bloomfield, New Jersey, and a Vietnam veteran decorated with a Bronze Star, Joe is a coordinator of community programs for people who are blind and visually impaired and a radio talk-show host. Joe learned in 1976 that Retinitis Pigmentosa would slowly claim his vision and began preparing himself for a variety of career paths that he would choose as manager of a shoe store, owner of a pastry business, and his current work in radio and rehabilitation services. He has served in a variety of community leadership capacities, including President of his Lions Club and Deputy Grand Knight in the Knights of Columbus.
The award received, presented just prior to the first pitch of the game between the Thunder and the Portland Sea Dogs (Maine), recognized and celebrated the talent and potential of New Jersey residents who are blind or visually impaired. The ballpark announcer introduced Joe on the playing field, where he received a certificate of achievement.
The theme for the game was “Covering the Bases” with a goal of promoting full community inclusion and increasing awareness of achievements of individuals who are blind or visually impaired. A secondary goal was to demonstrate that people who are blind or visually impaired can and do enjoy participating in the same recreational and entertainment activities as anyone else.
More than 300 New Jersey residents attended the pre-game events and game as guests, including children attending summer programs offered by the State Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Blinded Vet Reaches Out to Counterpart “Down Under”
Through persistence and determination once he arrived in the country, World War II veteran and Southern California Regional Group President Paul Guzman connected in July in Melbourne, Australia, with the president of the country’s BVA counterpart.
“It’s never easy to find people when you try to do it cold turkey and don’t even know exactly who you are looking for, but it can be done,” said Paul. “I tried all kinds of things the month before I left, including Internet searches that turned up some names and an old address, but that was all I found.”
After extensive inquiries at his hotel, a restaurant, and a government office in Melbourne, Paul located 84-year-old World War II veteran Mike McGuire, current president of the Blinded Soldiers’ Association of Victoria, Australia, and his black Labrador Retriever guide dog. He discovered that McGuire, totally blind himself since his war injury in the trenches of New Guinea, had just closed down an office a month earlier and was now working out of his home.
He also learned that his new friend had been a 1980 paralympic bronze medalist and was one of the nation’s top blind bowlers.
McGuire greeted Paul, who had taken a taxi to his home, and visited with him over a two-day span. The pair discussed the veterans health and benefits systems in the two countries (Australia has no veteran-specific care, only government-run health care for everyone), compared technology and prosthetic devices, shared war experiences (McGuire landed at Normandy while Paul was a Navy Frogman), and vowed to meet again.
“Another comparison we made was with our two organizations: our 11,000 and his grand total of four members,” said Paul. “The big difference is that the Blinded Soldiers’ Association has only service-connected blinded vets from World II and almost all of them are gone.”
Paul said Australia’s Veterans Affairs Department cannot be compared to VA in the United States. There are no rehabilitation programs for blinded veterans, little in the way of inexpensive technology and equipment, and nothing in the way of legislative advocacy on behalf of McGuire and his fellow veterans.
Illinois Blinded Vet Conquers High Seas
Diveheart scuba divers, among them BVA life member Rick Olson, back row, second from right. Photo courtesy of Diveheart Foundation.
Blinded veteran Rick Olson, Illinois Regional Group, recently received his scuba diving certification, thanks in large part to Diveheart Military Wounded, a unique program of the Diveheart Foundation.
On May 17 in the Florida Keys, Rick became part of a group of veterans with Traumatic Brain Injuries, Quadriplegia, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder who had quickly learned at least one thing over the course of three months—that the oceans and lakes of the world become what Diveheart claims is “the forgiving weightless environment of outer space,” giving perfect buoyancy to a child or adult who would otherwise struggle on land.
“These injured veterans from wars so far apart and so different had one thing in common: they could now penetrate the surface of the ocean together with confidence, exploring the vast wonder of the water column that we call the world’s oceans,” stated a Foundation newsletter in describing the accomplishments.
“This was a long commitment but well worth the time and effort I spent studying and then practicing in different pools,” said Rick. “I highly recommend it to vets of all ages and abilities.”
Blinded Vet Lauded in Massachusetts
Richard G. “Dick” Vargas, Massachusetts Regional Group, was honored as the 2009 Disabled American Veteran of the year for DAV’s Department of Massachusetts. The recognition, presented for 30-plus years of devotion to the veteran’s cause and to untold numbers of veterans,” occurred at the Joseph R. Harold Awards Banquet on June 5 in the town of Leominster.
Dick is a life member of BVA and has worked full-time in many positions as a social worker for VA for 24 years. Prior to that, he also served veterans in a number of volunteer capacities.
Included in the award package was a certificate from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ House of Representatives.
A Memorial Day Worth Remembering
Executive Director Tom Miller pays respects with BVA wreath at Tomb of the Unknowns on Memorial Day. Photo courtesy of Eric Long Photography.
President Barack Obama enjoys light moment with Diane and Norman Jones, right, at White House Memorial Day breakfast May 25. At right, Charlene Kee, AMVETS National Ladies Auxiliary President. Seated at front are VSO organizational leaders.
Martinsburg Group Visits Nation’s Capital
Fast and constant movement on the part of a VA Support Group of blinded veterans and their spouses from Martinsburg, West Virginia, described in the spring issue of the Bulletin, continued during the summer months.
The action was highlighted by a June 19 bus trip of approximately 65 miles to Washington, DC, where the group of 25 toured and ate lunch at BVA National Headquarters before venturing out to nearby memorials and neighborhoods. Logistics were planned and organized by VIST Coordinator Donna Cobean and Support Group President Gerry Fitzpatrick. Several medical center volunteers accompanied the group as additional support.
Gerry’s wife, Ana, captured the trip on camera with still photos of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial that would whet the appetite of any BVA member contemplating attendance at the 65th National Convention next summer.
The DC trip was followed by participation in a job fair at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center six days later. The group manned a table filled with BVA educational and promotional materials.
BVA National Headquarters Makes Presence Known in DC
BVA members and National Headquarters staff living in the Greater Washington, DC, have recently participated in two initiatives that brought increased recognition to blinded veterans and the Association’s National Headquarters location in the city.
On July 31, Tom Miller, Tom Zampieri, and former National Field Service Director George Brummell marched in an opening ceremony parade preceding the three-day Street Soccer USA national tournament held just six blocks from the headquarters building. DC Mayor Adrian Fenty also spoke at the event, which kicked off three days of benefit soccer games consisting of teams of homeless players from New York to Atlanta to Los Angeles.
As part of BVA’s partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau to encourage veterans and the general public to participate in the 2010 Census, a film crew arrived at headquarters on September 14. The purpose of the visit was to interview Tom Miller and local Field Service Representative Claudia Perry on camera about the constitutional significance of the Census and the importance of completing the 2010 questionnaire, which will appear in a future Census public service announcement and webcast.
Membership Director Issues Renewal Alert
All former BVA members and nonmembers have recently received a notice asking them to renew their membership or join for the first time, according to Director of Membership Alyson Alt.
“Bulletin recipients should check the top of the mailing label on their print version,” she said. “If the letters ‘FAM’ or ‘FM’ appear on their label, their membership has lapsed while ‘NM’ or ‘NAM’ means they have never been an active member.”
Renewal notices include an application and return mailing envelope. Membership dues can be paid by check, money order, or credit card. If veterans wish to pay with a credit card by telephone, they may contact Alyson directly at 202-371-8880, Ext. 3315. She will note the necessary information and process the application the following business day.
Alyson urges prospective members and those requiring renewal to consider life membership. It is possible, she said, to begin the membership with a $10 payment and take an additional two years to pay the balance due.
“The life membership is a money saver and, in addition, your membership demonstrates your commitment to the Blinded Veterans Association’s efforts on behalf of all veterans,” she said. “I look forward to hearing from you!