66th Convention Signals New Goals, Priorities
Altogether numbering approximately 350 attendees that included 180 blinded veterans and their family members, 42 exhibitors, two dozen presenters, and the Association's staff, attendees of the BVA 66th National Convention took in five days of camaraderie with new and old friends.
The convention, held August 16-20, also featured official business meetings, visits by dignitaries and scholars, a bowling night, Las Vegas gaming, Stratosphere jumps, many styles of fine dining within the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino complex, motivational and instructional training sessions, and a variety of other social, cultural, and recreational activities.
After just a day or two, blinded veterans had either sensed or been informed of the stark reality that important changes would soon be implemented by virtue of the opinions they would express and the votes they would cast in Las Vegas.
"I have mentioned many times recently that change is a good thing when it brings new experience, new leadership, new goals, and new opportunities," said outgoing National President Dr. Roy Kekahuna at the Opening Business Session. "This convention most certainly will provide us a point from which to launch those changes, which will hopefully make us more proactive as an organization."
Bylaws and Resolutions, New Officers
Major changes effected at the convention included two new bylaw amendments, passed with little or no opposition in both the established Committee and by the full membership during the Closing Business Session. The amendments 1) provide the National Board of Directors with the authority to set the dues structure, and 2) outline a change in said structure effective January 1, 2012.
Reverend Neftali Sanchez stirred emotions throughout the convention with frequent references to his impending retirement after 33 years as BVA's National Chaplain.
Regional group delegates and attendees also passed 16 resolutions, 15 of which were considered as a block since they had been previously considered and passed at the 65th National Convention but not implemented during the previous 12 months. An additional standalone resolution, the 16th, also passed unanimously.
As of the Saturday evening Awards Banquet swearing-in of National Officers by Neil Appleby, all but three of the 11 National Board of Director positions had new names next to them. Directors of Districts 1, 3, and 5 represented by David VanLoan, Joe Parker, and Dr. George Stocking, respectively, remained on the Board while the following were either elected or appointed to their new positions: Sam Huhn, National President; Mark Cornell, National Vice President; Robert "Dale" Stamper, National Secretary; Roy Young, National Treasurer; Freddie Edwards, Director District 2 (Interim); Robert Mower, Director District 4 (Interim); and Ronald Anderson, Director District 6 (Interim).
Dr. Roy Kekahuna assumed by protocol his new position on the Board as Immediate Past National President. Joe Burns will remain as an Honorary Member of the Board of Directors as a consultant on financial matters.
President Sam Huhn, Pennsylvania Regional Group, is a native of the Philadelphia area. He currently resides in Elkins Park near Philadelphia. Sam served in the Marine Corps beginning in 1961 and was honorably discharged in 1967 as a Sergeant E-5. His principal work was in the area of Naval Aviation Supply.
Sam worked for the General Electric Company's Aerospace Group in one capacity or another from 1957 until 1990. His various positions included Quality Property Control Inspector, Production Control Specialist, Management Specialist, Engineering Specialist, and Project Manager. He received his Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration in 1973.
Sam was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa in the early 1960s but did not become legally blind until several years later. He has dedicated much of his time since the early 1990s to serving disabled veterans, acting as a volunteer National Service Officer, President of his regional group, and a BVA District Director.
He is a life member of the Marine Corps League, Disabled American Veterans, and AMVETS. He has also served on the Board of Directors of the Montgomery County Association for the Blind and has been active in the Delaware Valley Council of the Blind.
Sam is active in several sports and fitness service organizations and has received awards for his work with the Middle Atlantic Blind Golf Association and his participation in the annual National Blinded Veterans TEE Tournament.
After 32 years of service as BVA's National Chaplain, the Reverend Neftali Sanchez turned over the reins to the Reverend Clyde Jackson of Midlothian, Virginia (Mid-Atlantic Regional Group). Charles Davis of Houston, Texas (Greater Houston Regional Group), will serve as the upcoming year's National Sergeant-at-Arms.
Following tributes to retiring Executive Director Tom Miller, a BVA employee for 26 years, National President Sam Huhn introduced Steve Beres as the new Executive Director upon Tom's retirement.
Steve had served as BVA's National Treasurer during the past two years. Due to personal and family reasons, Steve found it necessary to resign as Executive Director prior to assuming his duties.
Operation Peer Support Now Six Years Strong
Operation Peer Support participants happily and proudly display copies of the popular Onion, a satire publication that parodies a traditional newspaper layout. Photo courtesy of Liesl Marelli.
Despite all of the change that occurred at this year's gathering, the convention still featured many of its traditional components. Operation Peer Support, for example, brought 12 recently blinded service members, including two from the United Kingdom, to the event. Seven additional participants who had attended a previous convention paid their own way to attend this year.
Operation Peer Support brings together veterans of recent conflicts with those who have lost their sight in Vietnam, Korea, or during World War II. The program's objective is to provide newly blinded veterans, or service members if they have not yet been discharged, with examples of and opportunities to interact with men and women who have led happy and prosperous lives despite their blindness. Operation Peer Support also seeks to assist families in their adjustment challenges.
Participants this year engaged in seminars on topics related to VA blind rehabilitation programs, higher education benefits, schools for the blind, entrepreneurship, family health insurance benefits, employment, and sports competition. In addition to the much publicized Stratosphere jump and bowling, activities also included a rifles and darts session presented by the United States Association of Blind Athletes, a get-acquainted dinner sponsored by National Industries for the Blind, and a structured walk through the convention's Exhibit Hall.
Attending the convention for the first time were Martin Bailey, Kevin Burton, John Crittenden, William Drinkwater (U.K), Dorian Gardner, Timothy Hornik, Cory Kemp, Robert Long (U.K.), Pedro Rodriguez, Ken Sargent, Steven Schulz, and George Wiater. Operation Peer Support returnees were Simon Brown (U.K.), Douglas Cereghin, Dexter Durrante, Travis Fugate, Sean Johnson, David Kinney, and James Nealey.
The convention component of the program is possible through generous financial support, this year from Health Net, National Industries for the Blind, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Optometric Association, Genentech, the Allergan Foundation, and QTC Management.
Shinseki Reports Progress, Reiterates VA Agenda
"We will continue to find new and better ways to improve the quality of life for blinded veterans," said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki.
Keynoting the convention's Wednesday morning Opening Business Session, Shinseki told the Grand Ballroom's standing room only crowd that since 2008, VA has established 35 new BROS positions to serve veterans and service members in their homes and communities.
VA Secretary Shinseki stands with Representative Shelley Berkley at convention press briefing following the Secretary's Opening Business Session address.
He also mentioned the increase by 11 in VIST Coordinators and the fact that inpatient BRCs served more than 2,000 veterans or service members last year alone. The number of veterans on the VIST rolls has now passed the 50,000 mark.
"Funding has also been provided to ensure that every BRC has a full-time psychologist and recreation or creative arts therapist on staff," he said. "In keeping with the times, all blind rehab facilities and sole practitioners are being equipped to provide telehealth services for veterans and their families."
Shinseki commended BVA for recognizing and supporting better coordination between DoD and VA in providing services to blinded veterans. He mentioned again the imminent opening of two permanent office facilities for VCE, one at the new Walter Reed in Bethesda and the other at Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis, Washington.
"We will test a pilot application of the joint Defense and Veterans Eye Injury and Vision Registry this fall and, after that, will commence large-scale patient data entry for eye-wounded service members and veterans."
Shinseki was preceded by a stirring rendition of our National Anthem by Kevin Dort, a high school student from nearby Henderson, Nevada, and followed by remarks by Representative Shelley Berkley (D-NV-1), Senator Dean Heller (R-NV), and Representative Joe Heck (R-NV-3).
No VIST/BROS But Exhibitors Come Anyway!
For the first time in several years, VA BRS was not financially able to bring its Visual Impairment Services Team Coordinators and Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialists for meetings and training sessions that have traditionally run concurrently with BVA's national convention events.
Because VA BRS professionals at the conventions typically visit the Exhibit Hall, often with great interest and the possibility of influencing many sales, BVA believed prior to the convention that companies would be far less interested in exhibiting this year and that turnout would be much lower than usual.
Such was not the case. The total number of exhibits was essentially the same as it had been in the years most recent. While some exhibitors who usually attend did not make it to Las Vegas, others came to a convention for the first or second time ever.
Margarine, Volunteers Give Their All
BVA national conventions would not be possible without the cheerful service and dedication of its volunteers, both the regulars who serve each year as well as those recruited in local areas by Convention Volunteer Coordinator extraordinaire Margarine Beaman.
Volunteers at the 66th National Convention were certainly no exception. Special thanks are extended to Thomas Moran of Post 1947 of the Catholic War Veterans of the USA, Inc. Tom volunteered most of the week and stayed overnight at the Golden Nugget at his own expense. Also worthy of mention are locals Phil Villela, Tina Wallace, and several volunteers supplied by nearby Nellis Air Force Base.
Wendy Gore, left, drove more than two hours from St. George, Utah, to volunteer her services. Also pictured, left to right, Margarine Beaman, Frances Bautista of the 99th Civil Engineering Squad at Nellis Air Force Base, and Master Sergeant Rudy Moreno of the Nellis 820th Red Horse Squadron.
Those with previous or present ties to BVA who helped include BVA official sweetheart Dawna Johnson, Renee Johnson, Valarie Nibert, Larry Martinez, Sam and Anita Ayoob, Kathleen Hanna, Lindsay Ruais, Liza Smith, and Cora Stamper.
A Leap into Desert Heat
Who were the most daring, or perhaps the most insane, of the blinded veterans attending the 66th National Convention? A case can be made for the 12 of them who, on Wednesday evening, could not wait to make the highest controlled free fall in the world.
These would include Vietnam veterans Wilbert Willis, Franklin Martin, and Steve Mertes of the Michigan Regional Group; Michael Kanitsch of the Northern Arizona Regional Group; BVA National Officers Mark Cornell, Dr. Roy Kekahuna, Roy Young, and Steve Beres; and Operation Peer Support participants Kevin Burton, Rob Long, Dexter Durrante, and Douglas Cereghin.
Members of the volunteer group hopped in a van for a quick trip over to the nearby Stratosphere Hotel, where they were prepped and attired in the Stratosphere's custom jump suits. Soon thereafter they were provided with a safety lesson and taken on an elevator the equivalent of 108 floors upward.
Jumpers were then connected to a high-speed "descender" and led to the edge of the platform, where they took the final step prior to plummeting 855 feet to the ground in approximately 15 seconds.
Goodrich Addresses Willingness to Serve
"What strikes me about veterans is that although they have served on the battlefield, they don't end their service to their country and their fellow countrymen when they end their military service," said Dr. Gregory L. Goodrich, VA Research Psychologist at the Western Blind Rehabilitation Center in Palo Alto.
Speaking to convention attendees at the Friday Father Thomas Carroll Memorial Luncheon, Dr. Goodrich praised veterans in general but singled out blinded veterans in particular for their willingness, nearly without exception, to participate in research studies that will make life better not so much for themselves but for other Americans and people around the world.
"Speaking for myself and other researchers everywhere, we can't do what we do without you," he said. "No matter how bright we are, we are not going to come up with the right answers to whatever question we are asking without bringing you into that process."
Dr. Goodrich said that blinded veteran "participants" in research studies, previously referred to as "subjects," never turn him down. He also said that offers to reimburse veterans for their time and expenses are often met with both resistance and with the question as to whether the funds couldn't better be spent to help someone else.
"That willingness to serve for the benefit of others is very much a part of the character of our veterans," he said. "This is something that is not recognized enough for how important it is and how special it is."
In addition to his regular duties, Dr. Goodrich serves as the Program Coordinator for VA's Optometric Research Fellowship Program in Palo Alto. In 2009, he and colleague Dr. Glenn Cockerham together received the Olin E. Teague Award, VA's highest rehabilitation research award. The citation highlighted their research group's efforts in developing innovative rehabilitation for neurological vision loss.
Dan Standage of the Southern Arizona Regional Group is the 2011 recipient of the Major General Melvin J. Maas Award for Professional Achievement. His perseverance has engineered a highly successful academic and professional career in the service of student veterans, many of whom have returned from military service with various sets of mental, physical, and emotional challenges. As the liaison for veterans seeking academic accommodations for their disabilities, Dan has been instrumental in getting them the help they need through a variety of services and organizations.
Roy Kekahuna presents Dan Standage, Southern Arizona Regional Group,with Major General Melvin J. Maas Award for Professional Achievement. The award is BVA's highest honor.
Dan helped initiate a student veterans resource center and a student club to help veterans obtain the help they needed with education benefits and "to find their way in the maze of academic life" at the University of Arizona. He served as the first office director and club president, encouraging students to "experience" college rather than merely attend classes. The club was named National Chapter of the Year in 2010 among 320 entries by the National Student Veterans of America. The resource center is considered by peer reviews to be one of the top six in the nation.
As the resource center and club were developing, Dan served as the vice president and then president of the Southern Arizona Regional Group. He was also a parent to three young children, all the while enrolled in a full load of college courses. Immediately upon graduation in July 2009, Dan accepted a position as the Project Coordinator for the Disabled Veterans Reintegration and Education Project at the University of Arizona. He was sought out for the position among more than 100 other applicants.
Currently, Dan serves on many committees, boards, and roundtables, the most notable of which is the Mental Health Advisory Council at the Tucson VA Medical Center. He was instrumental in bringing VA mental health services to campus and to the nearly 1,000 GI-Bill eligible students to whom he has access by virtue of his position. By bringing the services to where the veterans are, the latter take better care of themselves, resulting in improved grade-point averages and graduation success rates.
Dan's visual impairment and his brain and spinal cord injury are the result of a rare reaction to the Japanese encephalitis vaccine he received during his service in the Marine Corps while stationed in Okinawa. The high cerebral fluid caused optic nerve atrophy, leaving him with no vision in his left eye and 5/200 acuity in his right eye.
Ronald Morales, also of the Southern Arizona Regional Group, received this year's David L. Schnair Award for exceptional voluntary service. Since beginning his tenure as a service officer at the Southwestern Blind Rehabilitation Center in Tucson, Arizona, Ron has referred more than 1,000 claims on behalf of veterans throughout the western United States. At stake were such benefits such as nonservice-connected pensions, housebound aid and attendance, initial service-connected disability benefits, and increases in such benefits.
According to VIST Coordinator David Clarke, Ron is considered one of the best service officers at the Tucson VA Medical Center. He arrives early in the morning and often leaves after 8 p.m. He is known for his humility, an ability to learn quickly, his careful attention to detail, and his consistency in following through to secure positive results. After just two years on the job, he has a vast knowledge of Title 38 programs.
Ron has helped the BRC obtain recreation equipment such as specialized tandem bicycles. His efforts have benefited blinded vets both locally and those attending the program from out of state. He has volunteered his time, effort, and family resources to put on fundraising events and to arrange events such as Christmas dinners at the local VFW hall and joint participation by BVA and the BRC in the annual Tucson Rodeo Parade. The latter event, the largest non-mechanized parade in the country, resulted in a second-place finish in the float contest, extensive local television coverage for blinded veterans, and participation by National President Kekahuna.
Active in BVA's Southern Arizona Regional Group as the Secretary-Treasurer, Ron helped establish a chapter of the group in the city of Yuma. He is presently setting up another one on the Indian reservation in the town of Sells. Additionally, he is in discussions with the Navajo Nation Reservation to set up still another chapter there.
Prior to becoming blind, Ron owned his own grocery store and before that had an extermination business. He is a Persian Gulf Era veteran, having served in the Marine Corps in the early 1980s. He is the father of five children.
2011 Certificate of Appreciation
BVA honored the following individual at the Friday Father Carroll Luncheon with a 2011 Certificate of Appreciation:
Blind Rehabilitation Service
VA Central Office
A special plaque presentation was made at the Awards Banquet to Dr. Norman Jones, Jr., Georgia Regional Group, for his ten years of service on the National Board of Directors as Treasurer, Secretary, Vice President, President, and Immediate Past President.
Gold and Silver Gavels Earned
The Florida Regional Group once again retained the Gold Gavel, having seen the largest increase in number of new members of any other group for the third consecutive year. Membership increased in the group from 1,486 to 1,516.
The Silver Gavel, awarded on the basis of percentage increase in members, was presented at a regional group meeting subsequent to the convention by Director of District 1 David VanLoan. The award went to the Rhode Island/Southeast Massachusetts Regional Group, which increased its membership by slightly less than 20 percent, from 98 to 122 total members.
Gearing Up For Galveston
With this year's gathering scarcely in the rear-view mirror, early planning is already in order for blinded veterans and their families hoping to land next summer in Galveston, Texas, the most visited attraction of the Lone Star State.
Dates and venue for the BVA 67th National Convention are, respectively, August 21-25, 2012, at the San Luis Resort and Conference Center. Potential attendees are encouraged to fly into Houston's Hobby Airport (HOU), the landing closest to Galveston.
A small, romantic island tucked deep within the heart of South Texas approximately 40 miles south of Houston, Galveston offers a strip of paradise 32 miles long and 2.5 miles wide consisting of relaxing beaches, superb restaurants, top resort hotels, marvelous downtown shopping, numerous antique stores, and upscale art galleries and entertainment. The island is also home to one of the largest and most well-preserved concentrations of Victorian architecture in the country.
Galveston's summer high temperature averages 87 degrees Fahrenheit with a pleasant coastal breeze.
Guest room rates for the convention will be $99 per night plus a 15 percent tax. This is a discount from the standard summer rate of $260 per night. Every San Luis Resort and Conference Center room has a view of the ocean. The Greater Houston Regional Group, host group for the five days, is working on details for dolphin watching, full-day and half-day fishing trips, and a trolley from the hotel to the Strand District.
Detailed hotel information and recommendations for visiting Galveston's rich historical and recreational attractions will be provided in both the Winter and Spring issues of the Bulletin and on the Convention page of the BVA website. For access to more immediate details, contact Convention Chairman and National Secretary Roy Young at email@example.com.
On the cover of this edition of the Bulletin, top left photo, Laurel Kekahuna expresses relief after Roy's downward plunge from the Stratosphere Hotel. At top right, Tom Miller outlines BVA Friday Forum agenda to session attendees. Bottom photo has Convention host and regional group president Chuck Conger, second from left, welcoming BVA members and their families to the traditional President's Reception. Chuck is joined by his wife Chris and Rae and Patti Hail from Oregon.