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Olson Basks in Power of Scuba

Rick Olson, third from left, wore a full face mask with communication capability in order to speak with instructors and then hand sign to Ericka Remington to his immediate right. The new technique is revolutionary in working with the deaf-blind. Photo courtesy of Diveheart.

Rick Olson, third from left, wore a full face mask with communication capability in order to speak with instructors and then hand sign to Ericka Remington to his immediate right. The new technique is revolutionary in working with the deaf-blind. Photo courtesy of Diveheart.

Illinois Regional Group blinded veteran Rick Olson was one 30 scuba divers who converged on the waters of Cozumel, Mexico, December 2-15.

The trip was arranged and conducted by The Diveheart Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Downers Grove, Illinois. Its mission is to build confidence and independence in children, adults, and veterans with disabilities through the sport of scuba diving.

For Rick, already a certified totally blind diver, a highlight of the trip was successfully experimenting with a new training technique for blind scuba. Diveheart instructors and Divemasters used ocean reef full-face masks with communications to relay commands to Rick, who also wore a mask and tactually communicated the instructions to Ericka Remington, a totally blind and deaf woman.

“This communication technique had never been done before and could, in the future, allow individuals to scuba dive safely while enjoying and ‘seeing’ the underwater environment in a unique way,” said Diveheart President Jim Elliott.

According to Rick, the technique did not come without arduous practice and hard work.

“We worked on the skills test until dark one day and Ericka did very well,” he said. “The more we practiced, the easier it became until we began to relax and feel comfortable with the new world in which we found ourselves.”

Rick’s dives during the trip included one in 65 feet of water onto a sunken, 100-foot-long Coast Guard boat. He also made drift dives in which he was so close to the bottom of the water, and the current so swift, that his hands skimmed through sand.

Rick also experienced aquatic life firsthand, as well as canyons and caves. He could feel the various types of underwater animals and shells. With knowledgeable divers with them, he said, they were able to feel things without the chance of getting hurt.

“It wasn’t until we got home that it really dawned on us how lucky we were to have had this experience,” he said.

Kandace McCue, Orientation and Mobility Instructor at the Central Blind Rehabilitation Center at Hines, also made the trip.

Diveheart activities in Cozumel were made possible through grants from a variety of sources, including the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.

World War II Vet Present for USS New York Commissioning

 

Jack Shapiro, longtime member of the New York Regional Group, and his wife Eve joined the commanding officer, other officers, and crew at One Intrepid Square on the Hudson River in New York City November 7. The occasion was the commissioning of the USS New York LPD 21.

Docked next to The Intrepid, which is now a museum, the USS New York occupied the area in which the largest transatlantic liners were once docked prior to the era of jet aircraft.

The cast of speakers included U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, New York Governor David Patterson, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Admiral Gary Roughead, and Commandant of the Marine Corps James Conway.

“The piping on board, which concluded the commissioning, was most impressive, as were the 21-gun salute and flyover,” said Jack. “There were some emotional moments for me as I thought about the ever-present backdrop of the 9-11 tragedy and as we were reminded that 7½ tons of steel from the World Trade Center rubble made up part of the ship.”

White Cane Day Puerto Rican Style

 

 

The Puerto Rico Regional Group commemorated White Cane Day 2009 in grand style, with official proclamations, plaques of appreciation, an educational session, a ceremony honoring “Puerto Rico Model Blinded Veteran of the Year,” and a hospitality-filled “almuerzo” (lunch) with all of the trimmings that even included background music.

The activity was held on November 13 in the auditorium of the VA Medical Center in San Juan.

Following recognition of Cristela Torres as Veteran of the Year, proclamations honoring White Cane Day from The Honorable Governor of Puerto Rico Luis Fortuño and San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini were both read. The proclamations were then presented to Cristela and María Nevarez, Director of the Puerto Rico BRC, by various city officials representing the Mayor, Veterans Advocate, and the Advocate for the Physically Handicapped.

Plaques recognizing “dedication, patience, loving care, and assistance to the well-being of our veterans” were presented to María Nevarez and VIST Coordinator Evelyn Cancel. Also receiving plaques were four computer technology instructors at the blind center—Victor Diaz, Hector Román, Ivan Nieto, and Carlos Carmona.

“Our BRC is one of the best of the ten out there,” said Regional Group President Juan Olmeda. “We needed an opportunity to honor those who have made it such a great facility since its inauguration in 1985.”

José Alvarez, a blind technology assistant at the University of Puerto Rico and a computer instructor for local veterans who cannot attend the BRC, was the featured speaker at the celebration. His topic centered on the impact of recent technology on the disabled of Puerto Rico. Alvarez has designed an Internet program for the learning of Braille and several other computer programs for both blind children and blind adults.

“Wreaths Across America” Receives Local BVA Support


Blinded veterans Gerry Fitzpatrick and James Hammond of Winchester, Virginia, and Martinsburg, West Virginia, respectively, presented a ceremonial wreath December 12 on behalf of BVA as part of the Wreaths Across America project.

Representing veterans, Gerry also gave a brief speech at the event at the request of Civil Air Patrol Squadron Commander and Public Affairs Officer Captain Christopher Colvin.

Gerry Fitzpatrick addresses Wreaths Across America gathering at Winchester National Cemetery on December 12.
Gerry Fitzpatrick addresses Wreaths Across America gathering at Winchester National Cemetery on December 12.

The ceremony was conducted at the Winchester National Cemetery by the local Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol in partnership with Wreaths Across America. The Civil Air Patrol is an organization focusing on flying and leadership development for youths age 12 to 18. Each year the squadron decorates the graves in a different section of the five-acre site.

Approximately 90 wreaths were placed on graves in the southwestern section of the cemetery. The ceremony was duplicated in 400 cemeteries across the country that same day, including Arlington National Cemetery.

Other speakers included Colonel Ronald Light of the Middle East Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of Winchester and Lieutenant Colonel William Zana, Battalion Commander in the Army National Guard.

Fortuitous Encounter for Utah Blinded Vet

 

Blinded veteran Leland Wimmer of the Western Mountaineer Regional Group, a retired attorney from Salt Lake City, found himself in the right place at the right time recently.

Accompanied by his son, Scott, Leland was in South Dakota last July 14 to visit Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse Monument 15 miles to the southwest. Crazy Horse, still a work in progress, is to be the largest manmade monument in the United States. It is crafted in honor of the respected war hero of the Oglala Lakota Indians who resisted federal intrusions.

“As we drove into Crazy Horse Monument, we were told of the historical blasting that was to occur at 11 a.m.,” he said. “Governor Mike Rounds was there and TV news channels were covering the event.”

The hoopla that day centered on a $2.5 million installment, the first of six in the same amount, to be presented to Ruth Ziolkowski, widow of sculptor and designer Korczak Ziolkowski, who had begun Crazy Horse back in 1948. The money was, in turn, to be given for construction of the remainder of the monument, which is reportedly so large that all four of the sculptured heads of Mt. Rushmore would fit on the face of Crazy Horse. The monument in its entirety will eventually measure 641 feet long and 563 feet wide.

“Scott was speaking with one of Mrs. Ziolkowski’s five daughters and later I was able to meet both her and her mother,” he said. “As I moved to our pickup to drive to Mt. Rushmore, a pleasant voice asked, ‘Mr.Wimmer, would you like to go to the top of the mountain’?”

Leland was unsure what that all meant until it was explained to him that a money-maker for the project is to take anyone willing to pay $125 to the top of Crazy Horse. In his case, however, he would pay nothing. Their trek to the top would be at the courtesy of his new friends.

“Scott then told me about the head man of the blasting operations coming from work with a key to open a locked gate just so that I could be taken out to touch Crazy Horse,” he said. “Thinking fast, the driver of our vehicle told me that because he had worked there for two years and never had the privilege of going beyond the gate, he would make it known that I now needed his help so that he could take advantage of this opportunity himself.”

Amid the clicks of cameras, Leland reached up and placed his hand on the “splendidly conjectured” Crazy Horse Chin. No one else in the group was allowed the privilege.

“After this exotic treatment, the high drama of visiting Mt. Rushmore just wasn’t the same this time,” he said.

The Crazy Horse Memorial mountain crew uses precision engineering to carefully and safely remove and shape the rock of the mountain. Both Crazy Horse and Mt. Rushmore are made from solid granite, forming the distinguished Black Hills of South Dakota.

Gedens Establish Vet Presence Among Citrus County Youth

 

Judging by how Bill and Nancy Geden spend much of their time in Citrus County, Florida, it isn’t difficult to see where their priorities are and where they believe the greatest amount of good can be done.

“We love hanging out with the kids here and providing them with the opportunity to learn more about veterans and their sacrifices for our country,” said Bill, a Vietnam era veteran himself and BVA’s official contact in Citrus County as a member of the Florida Regional Group. Nancy was National President of the BVA Auxiliary during 2001-03.

The Gedens manage their own food pantry for needy veterans. They both collect and distribute the foodstuffs. In addition, as reported in earlier Bulletin issues, the couple makes periodic contributions to Operation Shoebox, an organization founded in 2003 that sends that sends support, snacks, and personal care items, including BVA calendars, to U.S. troops deployed outside the country.

As if all that weren’t enough, Bill and Nancy kept themselves even busier last fall when they joined Retired Air Force Technical Sergeant Richard Floyd of Inverness and Retired Army Colonel Hank Butler of Crystal River as participants in a spelling bee contest they held for third, fourth, and fifth grade students at Inverness Primary School on October 28.

Ice cream party was welcome reward for success at veteran-sponsored spelling bee at Inverness Primary School.
Ice cream party was welcome reward for success at veteran-sponsored spelling bee at Inverness Primary School.

Approximately 70 students, teachers, parents, and sponsors attended the event, which had been pre-arranged earlier in the year with Sandra Cross, a first-grade teacher and the school’s Veteran Coordinator.

Winners in each grade level received a trophy depicting a bumblebee sitting on a short pedestal, a white cane pin, and a comment of congratulations from each of the three veterans. Overheard at one point, Bill said, was a student surprised that a trophy could be won for something other than a sports accomplishment.

During his remarks of thanks and congratulations, Bill reiterated the promise that the classes of the three winners, including teachers, would be treated to an ice cream party to be scheduled by the school and personally funded by him later in the year. The promise was honored in mid-January.

The Gedens also mingled with their community’s youth on Veterans Day when the car in which they rode in the parade was escorted by three members of the Citrus High School Junior Air Force ROTC. The cadets carried a BVA banner in front of the vehicle.

Castro Forges Ahead

 

Blinded serviceman Ivan Castro graduated from the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course December 15 at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The feat, reported in Paraglide Newspaper out of Fort Bragg, was one more to add to a list of courageous achievements that have allowed Ivan to remain on active duty, despite being totally blind for now more than three years. The accomplishments range from running marathons and participating in triathlons to tirelessly mentoring others who have been challenged with similar injuries—all during a time frame of little more than two years.

Ivan was critically injured during offensive operations of the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq on September 2, 2006. Less than a year later, he was at the BVA 62nd National Convention in Albuquerque as a participant in Operation Peer Support and also attended the subsequent convention in Phoenix.

The Captain’s course Ivan successfully completed is an intensive 20-week session that prepares Army captains to give company commands and to serve as officers at battalion and brigade levels. To keep up in classes, Ivan used a voice recorder and computer screen-reading software. He enlisted his roommate, Captain Gerard Torres, as a running buddy so that he remained on the track during physical training.

“I want to push the limits,” Ivan has said many times in news coverage. “I want to work every day, and I have a mission that includes not being treated differently than any other officer.”

Loathe to receiving preferential treatment in the Army because of his sight loss, Ivan’s graduation now provides him with even more momentum as he assumes his new assignment as the operations officer for the U.S. Army Special Operations Recruiting Battalion at Fort Bragg.

Sanchez Adds Spice To White Cane Day

With fruits of his recent labor at West Haven as a backdrop, Enrique Sanchez is joined by proud VIST Coordinator Stacy Pommer at VA Manhattan Campus.

With fruits of his recent labor at West Haven as a backdrop, Enrique Sanchez is joined by proud VIST Coordinator Stacy Pommer at VA Manhattan Campus.

Motivated by a computer skills training upgrade received during an early autumn stay at the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Center at West Haven, Enrique Sanchez voluntarily put together a project that served him and the New York Regional Group well at White Cane Day activities October 30.

The idea resulted in a large, four-panel poster display that would rest on an easel at the Manhattan (New York) VA Medical Center’s White Cane Day open house activities. Enrique also produced an electronic file that he displayed on his laptop computer next to the display.

“I wanted to produce, all in one display, information that would bring attention to eye diseases and how BVA and the general public could help veterans who are affected by these diseases,” said Enrique. “Based on the comments I received that day, I think I have accomplished that goal.”

Enrique’s poster included, on two of the four panels, information about major disease-related causes of blindness: glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration, left-field homonymous hemianopia, left-field homonymous hemianopia with macular sparing, ring or donut scotoma, migraine fortification phenomenon, and scotomas caused by pituitary tumors or lesions.

The other two panels displayed information about White Cane Day, including BVA’s handout on how to assist a blind person. Enrique also mounted two photos of President Lyndon B. Johnson and the first-ever White Cane Day proclamation issued by the President in October 1964. He also included a BVA emblem and photos of BVA national officers at recent events as a way of promoting BVA’s mission to assist veterans affected by diseases of the eye.

“I wanted to make an individual contribution to our White Cane Day activities this year and make them more meaningful,” said Enrique. “With the increased knowledge and abilities I developed at West Haven, it seemed like the most logical way to put them to use.”

BVA Scholarships to Assist Blinded Veteran Dependents

 

BVA will award six Kathern F. Gruber scholarships for the 2010-11 academic year, according to Brigitte Jones, Administrative Director at the Association’s National Headquarters.

The six scholarships are valued at $2,000 each.

The BVA Scholarship Committee will also select three alternates in case any of the awards cannot be subsequently accepted.

Gruber scholarships are limited to spouses and dependent children of blinded veterans, but the blinded veteran in question does not have to be a BVA member. Scholarships are awarded on the basis of merit by the Committee.

The awards are for a single academic year of study but recipients can re-apply to receive them a second, third, or fourth time.

Requests for scholarship applications can be addressed to BVA National Headquarters, Attn: Kathern F. Gruber Scholarship Program, 477 H Street NW, Washington, DC 20001. They can also be addressed to Keleeba Scott at 202-371-8880. Information and applications are also located at www.bva.org/news/.

Completed applications must arrive at BVA National Headquarters no later than Friday, April 16, 2010.

BVAA Announces Funds for 2010-11

 

The Blinded Veterans Association Auxiliary (BVAA) will award two Renee Feldman scholarships worth $2,000 and one worth $1,000 Renee Feldman scholarships for the 2010-11 academic year. The scholarships are open to the spouses and children of blinded veterans and membership in BVA is not required.

To be eligible for a Feldman scholarship, the applicant must have been accepted at the school of his/her choice. The institution in question may be a vocational school, community college, four-year college, or university.

The fees in all cases are paid directly to the school and are intended to defray the cost of tuition, books, and general fees.

The application process for the scholarships includes supplying information about previous academic achievement, a statement of present goals and plans, a 300-word essay, and letters of reference. Completed application packets must be received no later than Saturday, May 1, 2010.

Convention Manager Offers Travel Tips

 

Based on recent research she has conducted, BVA Convention Manager Christina Hitchcock offers the following tips for blinded veterans traveling to upcoming conventions or who are using air travel for other purposes:

1. Pack medicines and other medical supplies in carry-on luggage. The strict limitation on gels and liquids does not apply to prescriptions or other liquids needed by persons with disabilities or medical conditions. However, they must be packed separately in quart-sized, zip-lock bags and declared at the security checkpoint.

2. Note that the limit of one carry-on and one personal item does not apply to medical supplies, equipment, mobility aids, and assistive devices. These items are also exempt from checked baggage restrictions and fees. If blinded veterans have an assistive device (it is always wise to take a spare cane or other prosthetic aids) in their checked luggage, they may request that the fee be waived for that bag. This is not a rule that customer service representatives must follow but it is a courtesy often extended if requested.

Online BVA Newsletter Boosts Communications

 

BVA now has a monthly email newsletter, which features articles about the Association’s latest activities and stories about BVA members.Bulletin readers wishing to receive the newsletter should go to the BVA website Homepage. Click on the newsletter sign-up icon in the lower right corner of the page for the form to appear on the user’s computer screen. The newsletter can also be requested of Kay Starr at email kstarr@bva.org.

AFB Senior Site Spotlights Anniversary

 

BVA is the featured partner organization for the month of March on the American Foundation for the Blind’s Senior Sitewebpage. The page is found at www.afb.org/seniorsite.asp.

The feature includes the Association’s emblem, short human interest articles relating to BVA’s history and programs, relevant photos, and contact information. 
“AFB was gracious to allow us this honor during the month of our 65th anniversary,” said Executive Director Tom Miller. “This was especially appropriate when we consider AFB’s involvement in BVA’s early history.”

A trust fund with AFB was set up during BVA’s first year of existence once Board members realized the organization could not run without help on a $20 initial fee plus $5 of yearly membership dues. A year later AFB later provided BVA with one of its most trusted and faithful advisors, Kathern F. “Kay” Gruber. At the time, Kay was AFB’s Director of Services for the War Blind.

New Discussion Group for “Blinded Vets and Friends”

 

Blinded Vets and Friends, a website and online educational service initiated by Jerry Hogan, South Texas Regional Group, has initiated a new online discussion group that meets the second Wednesday of each month at 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Discussions center on issues surrounding blindness but always have a specific focus relating to independence and finding solutions to everyday problems through use of technology and social networking. The discussion leader is Terry Kebbel, blinded Vietnam veteran from the New Mexico Regional Group.

For more information, contact Terry at TerryKebbel@gmail.com or on SKYPE at Terry.Kebbel. Jerry Hogan can also be contacted at jerryhogan5@earthlink.net.

Field Rep Graduates, Looks Ahead to More

 

BVA Region II Field Service Representative Claudia Perry graduated last May 16 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Management from the University of Phoenix.

Claudia completed the degree as she fulfilled her responsibilities as a full-time BVA employee. She is also a wife and mother of a teenage daughter.

Not to rest on her laurels, Claudia intends to continue her education. She has enrolled in a Ph.D. program in Industrial Organizational Psychology.

“Wish me luck, though, because this program will take me approximately six years to complete!”

“Veterans Forum” Picks Up Steam

 

The popularity of two television talk shows for and about veterans hosted by PJ Scott, a member of the Washington Regional Group, continues to increase in the northwestern United States.

As of December 18 of last year, PJ’s shows, Veterans Forum and Veterans Forum Magazine, were being seen on 16 cable systems in four states that include Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska. They now reach two million cable subscribers.

Veterans Forum began in 2001 on WestSound Community Television in Kitsap County, Washington. PJ taped her earliest shows at American Legion Post 30. In 2005, she was invited by Bainbridge Island Community Television in the Central Puget Sound Basin to tape the programs at its studio.

The mission of the program is three-fold: to inform and encourage veterans to use their earned veterans benefits, to encourage them to join a VSO, and to provide a forum for them to share memories of their military experiences.

PJ lost much of her vision when she was exposed to radiation while in the Navy. She can still see outlines of objects and must wear dark glasses during show tapings to protect her eyes from the bright studio lights.

For additional information about Veterans Forum and its broadcast schedule, click on the links at www.veteransforum.net.

BVA Staffers “Deck the Halls”

 

BVA National Headquarters and DC Field Service staffers gathered December 15 to trim the office tree. The event was previously reported in BVA’s online monthly newsletter to friends and supporters.

After a struggle with the lights, individual ornaments were hung one-by-one as staff members chatted about the year’s events and munched on a wide assortment of potluck appetizers.

Besides the holiday celebration with BVA Headquarters staff, Tom Miller commemorated two other milestones on December 11.

Besides the holiday celebration with BVA Headquarters staff, Tom Miller commemorated two other milestones on December 11.

The event followed an annual holiday luncheon four days earlier at a Washington, DC, McCormick and Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant at which Executive Director Tom Miller also celebrated his 68th birthday. During the luncheon, Tom recounted the landmine explosion that left him blind and partially deaf 42 years ago at roughly the same time of year on December 4, 1967.

Tom has served BVA in one capacity or another for more than 30 years, having been elected National Secretary in 1979, National Vice President in 1981, and National President in 1983. Prior to his tenure as Executive Director beginning in 1994, he was the Director of Government Relations for more than eight years.