Reflection, Revelry Highlight Historic National Convention 

by Stuart Nelson

World War II veteran Harry Troop reunites with former BVA Administrative Director John Williams during convention tour of Marine Corps Museum near Quantico, Virginia.
World War II veteran Harry Troop reunites with former BVA Administrative Director John Williams during convention tour of Marine Corps Museum near Quantico, Virginia.

Members of the Blinded Veterans Association across a spectrum that now spans 65 years joined together with their families, the organization’s national staff, vendors, presenters, and other friends for a lightning-quick week of urgent Association business, presentations on technology and aids for the blind, an exhibit hall of more than 45 booths, and visits to historical sites, museums, and special programs.

It all took place August 24-28, 2010 at Arlington, Virginia’s Marriott Crystal Gateway Hotel just across the Potomac River from our Nation’s Capital, where BVA’s National Headquarters building is situated in the Chinatown District of the city. Several convention attendees made their way to H Street to check out the historic building.

The 357 total convention attendees were joined down the hall and throughout hotel guest facilities by a similar gathering of approximately 370 VA Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS) officials who were simultaneously attending their own annual conference and using available opportunities to visit the BVA exhibit hall.

“This convention is still one more BVA milestone that links veterans of today with those of yesteryear,” said BVA Executive Director Tom Miller. “Considering the challenges with which BVA has been faced during those 65 years, its longevity and continued ability to serve blinded veterans become increasingly significant with each passing year.”

Convention festivities also featured the traditional National President’s Reception and the Father Carroll Luncheon, highlighted by guest speaker Raymond Hazan, President of St Dunstan’s, BVA’s sister organization in The United Kingdom. Attendees of both the BVA convention and the VA BRS conference were treated at Wednesday morning’s Opening Business Session to lively addresses from Assistant Marine Commandant General James Amos and White House Special Assistant for Disability Affairs Kareem Dale.

Convention delegates passed three new proposed bylaw amendments. Two other amendments proposed by the Association’s National Board of Directors failed to pass. The convention floor also voted to approve the first 17 proposed resolutions as a block and then approved an additional two, totaling 19.

As part of BVA’s ongoing Operation Peer Support initiative, the Convention hosted 12 U.S. service members who had lost their sight in recent combat operations in the Middle East or as a result of health complications. They were accompanied by a spouse and/or other family members. Nine previous Operation Peer Support convention participants returned for a second or third year on their own, among them British blinded service members Ben Shaw and Simon Brown.

Acting Convention Chairman and activity planner extraordinaire Peter Davis, Mid-Atlantic Regional Group, extends his own warm welcome to convention attendees.
Acting Convention Chairman and activity planner extraordinaire Peter Davis, Mid-Atlantic Regional Group, extends his own warm welcome to convention attendees.

Expanded Outreach for Operation Peer Support

 

Recently blinded U.S. service members and their guests participated in the convention for the fifth consecutive year, thanks once again to generous financial support from several corporate donors and even a BVA regional group. They were Health Net, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Optometric Association, Eschenbach Optic, Team River Runner, and the Pennsylvania Regional Group.

Operation Brave Families representatives Renee Kavanagh, left, and Dusty Schlee, right, with OIF spouse Melissa Johnson following OPS presentation on dealing with family crises relating to combat injury.
Operation Brave Families representatives Renee Kavanagh, left, and Dusty Schlee, right, with OIF spouse Melissa Johnson following OPS presentation on dealing with family crises relating to combat injury.

Included in the cadre of Operation Peer Support participants hosted by BVA were the 12 service members and an equal number of family members. The service members were Kathy Champion of Gulfport, Florida; Aaron Cornelius of Trenton, Florida; Hugo Gonzalez of Pembroke Pines, Florida; Leia Larson of San Diego, California; Michael Malarsie of Bosque Farms, New Mexico; Marvin Molina of The Dalles, Oregon; James Nealey of Kuna, Idaho; Russell Nelson of Waveland, Indiana; James O’Neil of Clayton, Georgia; Phillip Riddick of Corona, California; Russell Sydow of Statesboro, Georgia; and Joel Tavera of San Antonio, Texas.

Former participants returning to the convention on their own were Dexter Durrante of Fayetteville, North Carolina; Douglas Cereghin of Phoenix, Arizona; Sean Johnson and wife Melissa of Aberdeen, South Dakota; Allen Osmundsen of Woodbine, New Jersey; Mark Schrand of Mesa, Arizona; and Scott Carruthers of Eden, Vermont.

Honorary life members from Great Britain, Simon Brown of Morley, West Yorkshire, and Ben Shaw of Prestonpans, East Lothian, also attended the convention on their own. They were accompanied by fellow Brit Alison Basher. The latter was employed at the Hyatt Regency in Phoenix in 2008 when she met Simon and Ben. She enjoyed their company so much that she visited with Simon on a subsequent trip home to England and then decided to attend both the 64th and 65th National Conventions as a much-needed Operation Peer Support volunteer and confidant.

BVA Wreath Remembers World War II Veterans

Dr. Roy Kekahuna with BVA wreath at World War II Memorial August 26.

Dr. Roy Kekahuna with BVA wreath at World War II Memorial August 26.

Eight blinded veterans made their way to the World War II Memorial on Thursday morning to present a BVA wreath at the site. Three of the eight present, Roy Kekahuna, National Chaplain Neftali Sanchez, and World War II veteran Paul Guzman, offered a few extemporaneous remarks in honor of all World War II veterans, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice in battle.

“Today we remember them with great respect and adulation at this beautiful, symbolic site as the great defenders against tyranny nearly 70 years ago,” said Chaplain Sanchez. “Our country is what it is today because of them.”

Also participating in the wreath-laying ceremony were Steven Beres, Roy Young, Charles Corrello, Peter Davis, and Charlotte Noddin with her husband Ted.

General Amos Stirs Crowd

 

“Your work here at the Blinded Veterans Association is critical as there is a sense of brotherhood here, a sense of healing, and strength in numbers,” said then Assistant Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps General James F. Amos.

Addressing an Opening Business Session capacity crowd that included attendees of the VA BRS conference and family members of blinded veterans, General Amos recalled experiences with Michael Jernigan and Matt Bradford, two Marines blinded in Iraq who had seemingly lost everything but whose resilience and restored hope has brought them to previously unimaginable heights in their lives.

He also credited the services provided by organizations such as BVA with encouraging wounded service members like Mike and Matt to never lose hope. He told attendees that BVA’s work is not done but perhaps only beginning.

“The vision and mission of the Blinded Veterans Association will only become more important over the next three or four years as our young men and women return from IED attacks that may be even more horrific than before,” he stated. “Notwithstanding that inevitability, there is a sense in your organization that if he can do it, then I can do it—and if she can overcome, I can overcome—surely I can!”

General Amos’ remarks followed inspiring musical renditions by popular country western singer Barry Michael and an introductory welcome to Washington by Kareem Dale, Associate Director, White House Office of Public Engagement, and Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy.

Hazan Amuses and Inspires At Father Carroll Luncheon

 

“On March 26 of this year, we celebrated our 95th anniversary as 16 blinded soldiers and sailors started their rehabilitation in a magnificent house in the center of the city,” said Captain Raymond L. Hazan, President of St Dunstan’s of London, England.

“Now, this is the important thing,” he continued. “That house was lent to us by an American—so you can see that you in this country were very much involved from the very beginning!”

Addressing the convention’s Friday Father Thomas J. Carroll Memorial Luncheon, Captain Hazan provided an historical overview of services for the blind in England and at the St. Dunstan’s facility itself.

“Even with all of the technological changes since our inception in 1915, two fundamental objectives remain at St. Dunstan’s,” he said. “They are, first, to provide training, and second, to provide lifelong welfare through helping our veterans feel that they belong to a very special family and by helping them be as independent as their disability permits.”

Ray Hazan and his wife Robbie charmed convention attendees with their good will.
Ray Hazan and his wife Robbie charmed convention attendees with their good will.

Captain Hazan described three hurdles, all beginning with the letter “A,” that confront those seeking services at St. Dunstan’s.

“The first ‘A’ is for Acceptance, the second for Adjustment, and the third for Achievement,” he said.

St. Dunstan’s promotes many of the same objectives and hopes for its nation’s blinded veterans and their families as does BVA in the United States. Both organizations belong to the International Congress of the War Blinded (IKK) through which Captain Hazan and Tom Miller originally met. Both have also placed a high priority on providing support to the recently blinded from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Captain Hazan was totally blinded himself and lost his right hand in an Irish Republican Army parcel bomb explosion in 1973.

Exhibit Enthusiasm Greets Hall Visitors

 

Companies numbering 45, both large and small, filled the exhibit hall. The latest in exciting technology and aids for blinded veterans successfully drew BVA attendees and VA BRS professionals again this year.

Convention exhibits kicked off with a Tuesday morning opening and ran through Wednesday evening. A special reception was held Wednesday prior to takedown for VA BRS employees.

In addition to their exhibits, America’s Vet Dogs, Enhanced Vision, LS&S, and Independent Living Aids also sponsored convention events. Several exhibitors placed ads in the convention program. For the first time ever at a BVA convention, four exhibitors made short oral presentations in a separate meeting room.

“Blinded Vets and Friends” Meets Outside Cyberspace

 

“Blinded Vets and Friends” began as a website developed by BVA member Jerry Hogan of the South Texas Regional Group. He envisioned an arena in which groups of blinded veterans, family members, relatives, and friends could gather to talk, exchange ideas and information, or just “hang out” together in an online chat room.

The success of the venture became apparent when more than a dozen members of the group and their families came together at the 65th National Convention, picking up where they left off in online conversations the previous week and month. They also gathered Thursday night for dinner at King Street Blues, a popular restaurant in the Crystal City Underground just steps from the Marriott Crystal Gateway Hotel.

Volunteering Ever Faithfully

 

This year, Volunteer Coordinator Margarine Beaman’s usual force of extraordinary volunteers featured several groups of U.S. Marines stationed at the Nation’s Capital’s Marine Corps Barracks.

Convention Volunteer Coordinator Margarine Beaman with her ever faithful cadre of Marine volunteers. Left to right front row: Private First Class Erwin Prisme, Private First Class Michael Zuwie, and Margarine. Back Row: Corporal Damian Brown, Corporal Robert Ankudovich, Corporal Orgaise Joseph, and Corporal Rollanz Edwards.
Convention Volunteer Coordinator Margarine Beaman with her ever faithful cadre of Marine volunteers. Left to right front row: Private First Class Erwin Prisme, Private First Class Michael Zuwie, and Margarine. Back Row: Corporal Damian Brown, Corporal Robert Ankudovich, Corporal Orgaise Joseph, and Corporal Rollanz Edwards.

Special recognition came to Margarine herself at the Awards Banquet, where she was presented a certificate of honorary membership in the Blinded Veterans Association. The honor was first announced at last year’s convention but was made official with the presentation of the certificate.

As always, BVA is indebted again to Assistant Convention Coordinator and Chief Troubleshooter Larry Martinez, full-time volunteers Peter Davis, Cora Stamper, Sam and Anita Ayoob, and Renee and Dawna Johnson. Also helping out at various junctures were Lindsay Ruais, Janeirah Jones, Liza Smith, and several others who, together, made the convention a success.

Accolades for Award Winners

 

Loyal Eugene Apple is the 2010 recipient of the Major General Melvin J. Maas Award for Professional Achievement. Gene’s exceptional professional contributions have touched literally thousands of lives, whether through art, helping low-vision veterans find employment, or enabling those discouraged over their vision loss to rehabilitate themselves to reach any goal they see fit to achieve. He has been a member of BVA since 1957.

For the greater part of his adult life, Gene has been an integral part of VA’s blind rehabilitation services: first as a consumer, second as a professional, third as an innovator, and finally as a role model. He is literally an icon of VA services.

Gene was blinded totally in a training accident at Fort Lewis, Washington, and later attended the Central Blind Rehabilitation Center at Hines. He subsequently went to work at Hines, associating with BVA pioneers and blind rehabilitation luminaries such as Warren Bledsoe, Russell Williams, Kay Gruber, and Mary Switzer. He has served BVA as president of the San Diego Regional Group and as secretary of the North Carolina Group.

Gene was picked to succeed Russell Williams as the Hines Chief when the latter was chosen as the National BRS Director at VA Central Office. Among Gene’s many accomplishments as Chief was the expansion of the program from 20 to 30 beds in response to the increasing demand for services from blinded veterans. The demand for the services expanded such that a decision was made to open the Western Blind Rehabilitation Center (WBRC) in Palo Alto, California, the second of its kind nationwide.

Ironically for a totally blind individual, Gene championed the cause of veterans with low vision, developing a program while at Hines that he would eventually implement himself during an eight-year directorship at the WBRC. The focus of the program was on research and the creation of an environment in which new ideas could be advanced.

Other accomplishments at the WBRC included the establishment of a clinical training program for Orientation and Mobility in collaboration with California State University at Los Angeles and Western Michigan University. He also created similar training programs for Rehabilitation Teaching at other colleges and universities and established the first Family Training Program for WBRC patients’ families.

Gene became the Executive Director of the American Foundation for the Blind in New York following his tenure at the WBRC. In that position, he was once again a strong advocate for the low- vision population, serving as a driving force behind the chartering of the low-vision interest group in the American Association of Workers for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He edited and published “Low-Vision Abstracts” with his wife, Maryann May.

After five years at AFB, Gene pursued a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina in Marketing, graduating in 1985. He joined the faculty of San Diego State University shortly thereafter.

Dennis O’Connell received this year’s Irving Diener Award for outstanding service to his regional group. Dennis is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, having served during 1967-71. Before entering the service, he attended St. John’s University and finished his education after his discharge by using the GI Bill and attending classes at night. He received a degree in Business from Pace University in 1980.

Despite his loss of vision due to Retinitis Pigmentosa, Dennis is known for his high energy level, an innovative spirit, and a diversity of interests and talents that he shares generously with his family, community, and fellow veterans. At one time, Dennis had accumulated 1,750 volunteer hours at the St. Albans VA Extended Care Center in Queens, New York.

In 1996, then New York Regional Group President Gerard McDonnell asked Dennis to resurrect the group’s newsletter, “The BVA Beacon.” In 1999, Dennis became Secretary of the group and proceeded through all of the chairs until becoming President. In his second year as Vice President, Dennis began organizing memorable four-day trips to visit chapters in Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany, a venture that unified the group for years to come.

Dennis is a master organizer on of behalf others. He represented BVA before the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services Commission, revised the entire constitution and bylaws for the regional group, and co-chaired the BVA 61st National Convention in Buffalo. He and his wife, Marilyn, reside in Floral Park, New York. They have two children.

Robert Keller, Sr., this year’s David L. Schnair Award winner for exceptional voluntary service, was born in Farmington, Michigan. At age 11, he moved with his family to San Diego, California, where he has resided much of his life.

Robert graduated from Saint Augustine High School in 1958 and served in the Marine Corps during 1959-63. He was extended until 1965 due to the Vietnam War. Shortly after his discharge, he joined the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office as a Deputy. At the time, he possessed a pilot’s license and spent many hours flying to various parts of the state.

He was injured in a motorcycle accident in 1970 that left him in a coma for 21 days and hospitalized for three years. The accident also left him totally blind and without the use of his right arm.

Robert worked for 15 years for Sav-On Drug Store. Notwithstanding his blindness, he graduated from Western State University’s College of Law in 1995. He joined BVA in 1982 in Oregon and, upon returning to San Diego, served as Secretary, Vice president, and President of the San Diego Regional Group. He has served blinded veterans since May 2006 at BVA’s San Diego Volunteer Office for 30-40 hours per week as an accredited National Service Officer very dedicated to his work.

2010 Certificates of Appreciation And Special Award Presentations

 

BVA honored the following three individuals with 2010 Certificates of Appreciation at the Friday Father Carroll Luncheon:

Alison G. Long
Social Worker
South Texas Healthcare System
San Antonio, Texas


Paul J. Rice
VIST Coordinator/Certified Vision Rehabilitation Therapist
Southern Nevada Healthcare System
Las Vegas, Nevada

Dr. Irene Yang
Staff Optometrist
VA Puget Sound Healthcare System
Tacoma, Washington

BVA also made special award presentations as follows:

David Danielson
Associate Director of Government Relations
American Optometric Association 
Washington, DC

Victor S. Wahby, MD, PhD, FACP
Founder
VA National Medical Musical Group
Washington, DC 


Board, Officers Look Ahead

 

Elections for six 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 six elections—for National President, National Vice President, National Secretary, National Treasurer, and Director of District 3— did not have an opposing candidate.

Sam Huhn’s election as Vice President at last year’s convention in Portland, Oregon, left a vacancy in the directorship of District 3 at that time. Neil Appleby, Pennsylvania Regional Group, filled the position on an interim basis for one year. Joe Parker of Pisgah Forest, North Carolina, was elected July 20, 2010 to fill the position for a full three-year term of office. Dale Stamper was re-elected in District 4.

The following National Officers were elected for their second and final one-year term of office. All of the offices were elected by one unanimous vote cast by National Secretary Mark Cornell during the Closing Business Session.

President – Dr. Roy Kekahuna, Southern Nevada Regional Group
Vice President – Sam Huhn, Pennsylvania Regional Group
Secretary – Mark Cornell, South Texas Regional Group
Treasurer – Steve Beres, Michigan Regional Group


District Directors elected for full three-year terms are:

Director of District 3 – Joe Parker, North Carolina Regional Group (unopposed)
Director of District 4 – Dale Stamper, Spokane Inland Empire Regional Group
(opposed by Mike Kanitsch)


The National Board of Directors also re-appointed The Reverend Neftali Sanchez of the Southern Nevada Regional Group for his 32nd consecutive year as National Chaplain and Sandra Niccum, also of the Southern Nevada Regional Group, as this year’s National Sergeant-At-Arms. The Board also extended the appointment of Joe Burns of the Louisiana Regional Group as a non-voting Honorary Member of the Board for his expertise in the area of finances.

Newly elected Director of District 3 Joe Parker, U.S. Navy, Retired, is a native of Transylvania County, North Carolina, and a current resident of the city of Pisgah Forest. Joe represents blinded veterans residing along the eastern seaboard from New Jersey to South Carolina.

Joe became legally blind in 1998 as a result of an acute exposure to Agent Orange as a Chief Construction Electrician in the northern regions of South Vietnam decades earlier. The exposure was linked to the diabetes and diabetic retinopathy he later developed.

He served two combat tours in Vietnam during the 1960s.

Retiring from the Navy in 1989 as a Chief Petty Officer after 30 years of service, Joe also worked as a civil servant for 12 years for at the Department of Labor. He retired from DOL as a GS-12.

“My fear is that other veterans will suffer the catastrophic total loss of their sight as I have,” he has said. “I have dedicated myself to other veterans and to blinded veterans in particular in the hope that my blindness will not be in vain—that I can prevent others from suffering the pitfalls that I have suffered and help them retain or regain their independence.”

Regional Groups Earn Gavels

 

The Florida Regional Group retained the Gold Gavel, having added the largest number of new members for the second consecutive fiscal year. The group’s total increase as of June 30, 2010 came in at 97 compared with its 82 the previous year. Terry King, the group’s president, was present to accept the gavel once again.

The Silver Gavel, awarded on the basis of percentage increase in members, was presented to the Cape Cod and Islands Regional Group, one of BVA’s most recently formed groups. The group increased in membership by 34 percent during the year.

Prepare Now for Vegas Showdown

 

The venue for the BVA 66th National Convention is The Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino on the renowned “Strip” in Las Vegas, Nevada. Dates for the gathering are set for August 16-20, 2011 with the possibility of some date restructuring during the upcoming months.

The hotel rate will be $42 per night Sunday-Thursday plus a 13 percent lodging tax and an additional charge for incidentals. The rate for Friday and Saturday evenings is $79. BVA will have an exclusive hotel registration desk at The Golden Nugget and a number of other special amenities.

Reservations can be placed now by calling 800-634-3454. Callers should identify themselves as attendees of the Blinded Veterans Association’s 66th National Convention.

Other cities likely to make bids for future conventions at next year’s Closing Business Session include Houston, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, San Diego, and Atlanta.