Around BVA...

 

Matthews Retires, Eckroth Takes FSP Reins

 

Executive Director Al Avina announced on October 24 the appointment of Edward Eckroth as the Director of the organization's Field Service Program. Ed replaces Steve Matthews, who retired September 14 after 16 years at BVA. 

Ed Eckroth, newly named Director of BVA's Field Service Program.
Ed Eckroth, newly named Director of BVA's Field Service Program.

Steve had served as the FSP director since 2004 and had previously worked as the representative for the Region I field office, then in Boston, beginning in 1996.

"BVA appreciates Steve's many years of dedicated service in helping our blinded veterans adjudicate their claims and access the benefits they have earned as a result of their service to our nation," said Al Avina.

Assuming his new position October 29, Ed will manage and direct services and assistance to blind and visually impaired veterans throughout the country. He will also administer BVA's Volunteer Service Program and assist in developing and strengthening the Association's regional groups. He will work cooperatively with the VA VIST Coordinators and BRC personnel and will advance BVA national programs through its seven field offices.

Ed lost most of his sight in 2003. He has served as the Field Service Representative for BVA's Region 1 since 2008. Based as a representative in Boston and subsequently in Philadelphia, he assisted blinded veterans and their families residing in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

"It has been an exciting couple of months for me as the new National Director of the Field Service Program," he said. "I wish to thank all of the FSP staff and the Volunteer Service Officers for their work, and I look forward to working with our staff to expand and improve BVA's services to America's blinded and visually impaired veterans."

Prior to joining BVA, Ed worked in retail management and in numerous capacities with community volunteer organizations. These included local Veterans of Foreign War posts, youth sports, and a local Head Start program, where he served for three years on a policy board and for one of three years as vice chairman.

"One of Ed's first tasks will be to search for qualified individuals to fill our two Service Officer vacancies," said Al. "We are pleased to have him on board here at National Headquarters and look forward to increased outreach of our program under his direction."

During BVA's Fiscal Year 2012, the Field Service Program assisted blinded veterans in receiving more than $7 million in compensation and retroactive payments. Even after an excellent year, Ed hopes that more blinded veterans might be located and helped.

"If any of our members know blinded veterans who are not receiving the benefits that they have earned through their service, they should contact a Service Officer as soon as possible so that we can be of assistance," he said.

Castro Among Finalists For Prestigious Award

 

Captain Ivan Castro, blinded in Iraq in September 2006 and a two-time participant in BVA's Operation Peer Support national convention program in both Albuquerque and Phoenix, was among four national finalists for the 2012 United Sports Athletic Association's (USAA) Athletic Inspiration Award for Courage in Sports.

The winner of the fan voting on Facebook, announced on Veterans Day during a one-hour "Courage in Sports" special that aired on CBS Television, was University of Clemson Wide Receiver Daniel Rodriguez with Ivan Castro, Lisa Hallet, and Melissa Stockwell right behind.

The award honors the individual who best exemplifies extraordinary levels of greatness in athletics and who has overcome hardships through sports. Among the four finalists, Ivan is in great company.

Daniel Rodriguez served one and a half years in Iraq, followed by a year-long tour in Afghanistan. Three weeks before the battle of Kamdesh in Afghanistan, he and a fellow soldier promised one another that they would pursue their dreams when they returned from duty. His friend was killed in the battle and Rodriguez was wounded by shrapnel and bullet fragments, resulting in a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for Valor. After training harder than ever to play college football, he made his debut on September 1 of this year as 24-year-old freshman.

Lisa Hallett started "Wear Blue: Run to Remember" to honor her husband who lost his life in Afghanistan. Melissa Stockwell became a two-time world champion in the paratriathlon after she lost her leg in Iraq.

Ivan has remained on active duty as a commander of a Special Operations Recruiting Company in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. With the aid of guide runners, he has run more than 24 marathons, including the Boston, New York, and Marine Corps events. He ran the 2007 Marine Corps Marathon in four hours and 14 minutes following 36 surgeries in 13 months.

Ivan left San Francisco on a tandem bicycle this past Memorial Day and rode east nearly 4,000 miles across 13 states and the District of Columbia the next 60 days. The journey, appropriately named the Sea to Shining Sea Ride, included his pilot and guide William Lahman and 13 other disabled active duty and veteran military. Created and managed by World T.E.A.M. Sports and sponsored by State Farm, the ride is conducted annually.

Ivan and his fellow cyclists experienced summer heat with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees on several occasions. They were met by residents in towns and cities across the country.

Holding fast to the belief that life is worth living as long as one is breathing, Ivan also Ivan counsels disabled soldiers and veterans. He also advocates for wounded veterans' participation in the Paralympics by meeting with members of Congress and encouraging military and civilian employers to hire the blind by speaking at events across the country.

Ivan was featured in country music singer Joe Nichol's 2011 video for his hit song The Shape I'm In.

Colorado Vet Shines at VA Festival and Beyond

 

Jim Stevens, Rocky Mountain Regional Group and blinded Vietnam veteran of the U.S. Army, won the Special Recognition Award at the national judging of the VA Creative Arts Festival.

The recognition from among nearly 1,900 artist entrees was for Jim's monochromatic graphite drawing entitled "Biafra." The piece was on display at the VA National Art Show in the Great Hall at the Massachusetts State House on October 12. He was also honored by his home city of Wheat Ridge, Colorado (a suburb of Denver), at a city council meeting on July 23 for having garnered the honor.

Judging for the national Creative Arts Festival is an almost year-long process that involves several levels of evaluation and ratings.

The winning drawing can be viewed on Jim's own website,http://www.scrimshawstudio.com/prints/biafra.html.

In 1970, while a Sergeant in the Army, Jim was shot in the head during a combat mission in Vietnam. The injury left him with bullet fragments and severe migraines that eventually caused a stroke in his visual cortex 23 years later. He was suddenly legally blind with only a pindot of vision in both eyes.

Soon thereafter, Jim lost both his teaching job at the University of Colorado and his wife. He was left as a single parent with two young daughters. He also stopped doing the artwork he had loved so much.

"In 2000, I determined to reinvent myself and become a full-time artist despite my disability," he said. "I began by finding a variety of special lenses to help with my technical skills and then struggled to relearn my craft for the next two years."

At the same time, at the urging of his daughters, he began the unlikely study of the martial arts.

Despite the setbacks and frustrations, Jim refused to give up on either of his new life goals. Today, his art is galleried across the country and his work collected internationally. He has written three books on art (Schiffer Publishing) and was recently honored by the Kennedy Center as a registered VSA Artist (Vision, Strength, and Artistic Expression) in both the visual and literary arts.

At age 51, he also became the only legally blind and also the oldest man to ever win the men's fighting competition in the martial arts "Tournament of Champions," an event with martial artists of all ages from across the country. He is also the only blind martial artist to ever be awarded a black belt in Shaolin Kenpo karate and is also a black belt in Taekwondo.

Three-time Emmy award winning screen writer Paul Cooper found out about Jim and is working on a screenplay about his life.

"I only want to encourage fellow BVA members with my story," he said. "Like all of us, I have felt overwhelmed by the challenges in front of me but little reminders, such as my daughter's 'Daddy, you promised not to quit' have been enough to make me stiffen my resolve and keep moving forward with my life."

BVA Reaps Fruits of Rob Soltes Golf Tourney

 

BVA has now become the beneficiary of a unique benefit golf tournament held in Southern California in memory of Major Charles R. (Rob) Soltes, Jr., O.D., an Army optometrist who heroically lost his life in Iraq when his vehicle tragically ran over an Improvised Explosive Device. The BRC in Long Beach, dedicated last January 25, is also named for Major Soltes.

This year's golf event occurred on October 15. It was attended by Al Avina and Tom Zampieri from BVA National Headquarters; OIF veterans Travis Fugate and Doug Cereghin; and by BRC low-vision optometrist Dr. Sally Dang, friend of BVA and widow of Major Soltes.

Tom Clarke, a friend of the Soltes family, organized the tournament eight years ago. BVA has benefited from the proceeds both this year and last year. According to Tom Zampieri, the 89 participants in the tournament and the 112 guests at the dinner/awards ceremony netted upwards of $8,000.

The venue for the event was the challenging Navy Golf Course Seal Beach in Cypress, California, a 27-hole complex occupying 220 acres in Orange County. A range and putting contest kicked off the competition, followed by the playing of 18 holes, the dinner/awards/raffle, and a limited-entry poker tournament.

National Archives Features BVA Historical Photograph

 

The Presidential Libraries of the National Archives has selected perhaps BVA's most historic photo to feature on an online resource containing more than 50 documents and records relating to disability history. The effort commemorated the 22nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) last July.

President Harry S Truman presenting the BVA Board of Directors with the organization's official insignia in the Oval Office of the White House on April 12, 1948.

The photo in question depicts President Harry S Truman presenting the BVA Board of Directors with the organization's official insignia in the Oval Office of the White House on April 12, 1948.

The selection of records also includes letters written by Helen Keller to President Herbert Hoover, photos of a White House Special Olympics dinner with President Bill Clinton, a ceremonial copy of the ADA, President George H.W. Bush's speech notes from the ADA signing ceremony, a statement by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the founding of the March of Dimes, and a White House memo regarding correspondence between Eunice Kennedy Shriver and President Lyndon Johnson about advocacy for intellectual disabilities.

"The BVA photo is a meaningful piece of American history, and its inclusion in the collection will allow more people to discover it," said Jeannie Chen, Social Media Coordinator at the National Archives Office of Presidential Libraries. "It is also one small way to honor the blinded veterans who have served our country."

To view on a screen the most original version of the historic photo directly from the Truman library, visitwww.trumanlibrary.org/photographs/view.php?id=18575.

Spudinators Make New Kind of History

 

For years, many times consecutively, blinded veteran bowlers from Boise, Idaho, orchestrated clean sweeps of the medals in Bowlers to Veterans Link and Golden Age Games competitions.

This past summer six "Spudinators," as the group appropriately named itself in the late 1990s, paved the way for the blind and visually impaired to compete in still an additional venue that could eventually break down even more barriers to participation.

"As far as I know, these veterans are the first group of visually impaired individuals to compete in any state Senior Games anywhere in the country," said Valerie Duffy, VIST Coordinator at the Boise VA Medical Center and an advisor to the Spudinators.

The six veterans were divided into two teams of three. Medals were awarded in a special "Visual Impairment" classification for the gold and silver medals at the Idaho competition. Team scores were based on three games bowled.

"To assist the Spudinators, pin spotters were allowed," said Val. "The role of a pin spotter is to communicate to visually impaired persons what pins are left standing after their first ball is released, allowing for the necessary adjustments to be made in order to knock down the remaining pins."

Prior to the Spudinators' entry into the Idaho Senior Games, neither the Idaho nor the national competition offered accommodations for the visually impaired to compete.

"That all changed on August 18 as Idaho offered a special visual impairment category to its games," said Val. "Both our blinded veterans and Idaho senior games officials are excited to be part of this groundbreaking venture."

She also expressed hope that the pioneering effort could "get the ball rolling" (pun intended) for not only bowling but a variety of visually impaired sports to be included in the National Senior Games.

"The Spudinators may very well have paved the way so that others can play!"

Gruber, Miller Scholarships To Continue in 2013-14

 

BVA will award seven total scholarships for the 2013-14 academic year, six under the Kathern F. Gruber program umbrella for $2,000 each and one $1,000 scholarship through the newly established Thomas H. Miller program.

The Miller program, now in its second year, requires the same application process and qualifications as the Gruber awards except for an added emphasis on music and fine arts. The scholarship committee will choose seven recipients and three alternates.

Dependent children, grandchildren, and spouses of blinded veterans, and those of active duty blinded service members of the U.S. Armed Forces, are eligible for the scholarships. The veteran must be legally blind and the blindness may be either service connected or nonservice connected. The veteran need not be a member of the Blinded Veterans Association.

To be eligible for the scholarship, an applicant must have been accepted for admission, or already be enrolled, as a full-time student in an accredited institution of higher education or business, secretarial, or vocational training school.

BVA began its first scholarship program 30 year ago, The awards are intended to defray a student's educational expenses, including tuition, books, and other academic fees. Scholarship payments will be made by BVA directly to the educational institution.

The scholarships will be awarded on a "most-highly-qualified" basis utilizing the following criteria: answers to questions on the application form; transcripts of high school and/or college records; three letters of reference; and a 300-word essay relating to the applicant's career goals and aspirations as well as past awards and achievements.

Scholarships are awarded for one year only. Applicants are advised that the BVA National Board of Directors has determined that Gruber and Miller scholarship recipients are limited to a total of four scholarships during their college careers.

Applications for the scholarships may be obtained from the Blinded Veterans Association, 477 H Street NW, Washington, DC 20001, at www.bva.org/services.html (look under section entitled Kathern F. Gruber Scholarships and Thomas H. Miller Awards).

Completed applications and supporting materials must be returned to BVA no later than Friday, April 19, 2013. Due to time constraints related to processing the applications for the scholarship committee's review, applications arriving subsequent to the aforementioned deadline will not be accepted.

Cleveland BRC Benefits From Double Generosity

 

Saving for the past six years, the Ohio Regional Group donated $2,500 on June 18 to the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Blind Rehabilitation Center.

Left to right, George Pyle, Terry Koblenzer, BRC Chief Ellen Papadimoulis, and Dave May.

The idea behind the donation, which matched the same contribution of $2,500 by the Koblenzer Family and Friends in memory of blinded veteran Dale Koblenzer of the Ohio Group, was to provide funds for patient activities and food for special occasions.

"We may not be like every other regional group in this regard, but we feel it is our duty and responsibility to make the VA programs for blinded veterans even more effective by providing this kind of support," said Treasurer Dave May. 

Adding deeper meaning to the occasion was the presence of regional group President George Pyle, who had been ill for some time and who passed away only one month later.

Baskis Offers Insights At Hill Movie Screening

 

Steve Baskis, Illinois Regional Group, was part of a September 19 panel discussion following a Capitol Hill screening of the documentary film Going Blind: Coming Out of the Dark about Vision Loss.

A major segment of the film features Steve's loss of vision as a result of shrapnel from a roadside bomb north of Baghdad. It documents firsthand his weeks of rehabilitation with orientation and mobility training at the Central Blind Rehabilitation Center at Hines before he joined Operation Mission Vision, the U.S. Association for Blind Athletes' military support program. Steve recently contributed a chapter to a book compiled by Michael J. Kerrigan entitled Courage in America: Warriors with Character.

The panel was moderated by film producer Joseph Lovett, who first determined to put the together the film as he himself experienced the onset of glaucoma. After years of slowly losing his sight, he decided to take action by investigating how people all over the country were responding to vision loss.

As the film begins, Joe explains his search for people who had lost their sight, beginning small on the streets of his hometown New York City and expanding to a diversity of places and people of all ages and backgrounds. With that effort come a diversity of stories about dealing with vision loss caused by sight-robbing diseases, infections, and accidents.

Other panelists at the screening included Jessica Jones, art teacher at LaVelle School for the Blind in New York City and also featured in the film; Christopher Danielsen, Director of Public Relations at the National Federation of the Blind; Dr. Suleiman Alibhai, Optometrist and Low-Vision Therapist; Dr. Robert Murphy, Ophthalmologist and Retina Specialist in the Washington, DC area; and Kim Hutchison, public policy consultant in the area of equal opportunity for persons with disabilities.

"I wish every medical school in the country could show this film," said Tom Zampieri. "BVA has encouraged and supported Joe in this effort because he has, with mastery, communicated what it is like to experience vision loss while at the same time offering hope in countless ways to those of us who have."

Tom attended the screening with Steve. Also present were Claudia Perry, Stuart Nelson, and BVA member Tim Fallon.

During the months of October and November, Going Blind: Coming Out of the Dark about Vision Loss was transmitted by dozens of Public Broadcasting System affiliates throughout the country. For additional information, visit www.goingblindmovie.com.

BVA HQ and Friends Sample Driverless Car

 

Four BVA National Headquarters staff members and four guests invited on short notice enjoyed a July 27 spin in a Google driverless car through a 12-block sector of downtown Washington, DC.

The drive, proposed earlier in the week by Google Public Relations Specialist Bryce Dubee, came about as a result of BVA's participation in a Google grants program for nonprofit organizations and the company's outreach to Military and Veterans Service Organizations. The opportunity seemed especially appropriate for individuals who may not currently have a driver's license due to vision limitations but who might be able to make use of a driverless vehicle in the future! 

Dick Vargas, left, and Billy Williams following spin in driverless Google car.
Dick Vargas, left, and Billy Williams following spin in driverless Google car.

On hand for the ride were BVA staff members Al Avina, Tom Zampieri, Kay Starr, and Stuart Nelson. Specialist Yesenia Morales (Walter Reed National Military Medical Center), Yesenia's sister Elizabeth, Korean War veteran/Massachusetts Regional Group member Dick Vargas, and Vietnam era veteran Billy Williams also joined the group. The latter two were coincidentally in town that day for a special program at Arlington National Cemetery commemorating the Korean War armistice.

The driverless car operates via a system that combines information gathered from Google Street View with artificial intelligence software from video cameras inside the car, a LIDAR sensor on top of the vehicle, radar sensors on the front, and a position sensor attached to one of the rear wheels that helps locate the car's position on the map.

In 2009, Google obtained 3,500 miles of street-view images from driverless cars with minor human intervention. As of 2010, Google had tested several vehicles equipped with the system, driving 1,000 miles without any human intervention and 140,000 miles with occasional human intervention.

Less than two months after BVA's demonstration, California Governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown, Jr. visited Google Headquarters on September 25 to sign State Senate Bill 1298. The legislation creates a legal framework and operational safety standards for the testing and operation of autonomous vehicles on California roads and highways.

"This is a big step forward," said Dubee. "Hopefully we'll see other states adopt similar measures down the road."

Claudia Perry Assumes New FSP Function

 

BVA Executive Director Al Avina has announced the appointment of Claudia Perry as the organization's Field Service Training Coordinator. Claudia's newly created role took effect on November 26.

In addition to her duties as BVA's Region II Field Service Officer with which she will continue, Claudia will work with other Field Service Officers, Volunteer National Service Officers, and other BVA volunteers nationwide to more effectively assist blinded veterans in their adjudication of VA claims and overall adjustment to blindness through rehabilitation training, counseling, and local participation in the organization's regional groups.

Perry joined the U.S. Air Force in 1995. She served for five and a half years before being medically retired as a Staff Sergeant. She attended the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Center in West Haven, Connecticut, in 2001 and graduated from the Computer Access Training course the same year. She joined BVA in May 2006 as a Field Service Representative. As an accredited National Service Officer, she covers a region that includes Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, The Philippines, Puerto Rico, Virginia, and West Virginia.

BVA in DC Checks Out VAMC Conference Bike

 

BVA staff members in Washington, DC, and a service member at nearby Walter Reed adjusting to loss of vision as a result of the rare VKH Disease, were invited guests of the DC VA Medical Center on July 5 to experience a recently delivered item of technology that can be utilized by blinded veterans for recreation and rehabilitation purposes.

A golf club, perhaps? New protective clothing for goalball? Or a newly designed kayak?

None of the above.

The item was, of all things, a seven-person, round-shaped cycle with headlights and taillights. Appropriately named "Conference Bike," it was ridden for about 30 minutes by Field Service Representative Claudia Perry, her assistant Cecilia Montenegro, and daughter Alicia; Communications Manager Stuart Nelson; and Specialist Yesenia Morales and her sister, Elizabeth.

Designed and engineered by German artist Eric Staller, the conference bike is manufactured in Germany. Staller describes the conception of the idea for the bike in a book entitled Out of My Mind. Although the bike retailed in 2004 for $14,000 and has a nonprofit price of $12,500, it was the 302nd one donated worldwide because of its potential use for rehabilitation.

The Conference Bike was designed for just that—conferencing.

"Staller designed the Conference Bike, or 'co-bi' as it is nicknamed, as a way of showing that technology can get us out of our cocoons rather than isolating us," said George Giannakos, an Occupational Nurse Practitioner at the Medical Center and a proponent of the vehicle.

Giannakos said he envisions a number of uses for the conference bike at the medical center and has already tried out a few of them.

"We hope to use it for some employee meetings, especially when team-building activities are involved, since it allows us both to sit close to one another and face-to-face," he said. "The opportunities presented for rehabilitation of our veterans using the Conference Bike are also almost without limit."

Cooler SC Efforts Pay Nice Dividends

 

Joe Cooler, South Carolina Regional Group, moved a mountain or two this fall as he arranged several White Cane Day awareness events virtually on his own and inspired Hampton, South Carolina, town leaders to draft and approve a proclamation of White Cane Safety Day.

A recent transplant back to his native state from the Virgin Islands, where he was accustomed to taking charge of outreach events for BVA, Joe started right where he left off. On October 2, he was successful in getting the White Cane Proclamation possibility placed on the town council meeting agenda.

"I was able to speak at the meeting and discuss what a White Cane Day Proclamation would all entail," Joe recounted. "They were excited to hear about it because there had never been any such proclamation in Hampton in the past."

At the next meeting on October 16, Mayor John B. Rhoden, Jr. and Councilwoman Anna Sue Rivers declared not just the first White Cane Safety Day ever but turned the proclamation into a week of recognition for the town during October 15-18. 

Joe also used his public relations skills to set up three White Cane demonstrations and BVA outreach tables at three area senior centers in the towns of Hampton, Yemasse, and Estil.

NLS Calls for BVA Input

 

The National Library Service (NLS) is requesting that blinded veterans submit requests for topics, works, or specific titles that can be made available by the service in the future.

According to Claudia Perry, BVA representative on the Collections Development Committee, NLS last year added the magazines of the Military Times (Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times, etc.) in response to the suggestions of BVA members and the national headquarters.

Claudia also said that NLS is currently working on translating its website for Spanish-speaking users and that suggestions for Spanish works are more welcome now than ever before.

Please send your comments or suggestions to claudia.perry@va.gov or contact her at 202-530-9286.

Korea 

By Richard Vargas

High on the Korean mountaintop I stand
With a rifle in my hand
Surveying all the valley and wooded land below
Knowing that's the place I soon will have to go
To fight an enemy I cannot see
But I know he's there waiting, to try to get me

But I'm an American from the land of the free
I came here to help a people to stay free, like you and me
I will look in every hole and behind every tree
And I will get him before he can get me
A RoK and I will stand side by side
And salute all those that have died
Fighting to keep their country free
That's the way it should always be

The Korean people can wipe away their tears
And put away their fears
Prosperous and free they will always be
Just like you and me


Dick Vargas is a Korean War veteran and a member of the Massachusetts Regional Group. He shared the poem with BVA National Headquarters on July 27 while visiting Washington, DC, as a guest of the Department of Defense to commemorate the 59th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.