Oregon Group Makes Lasting Impressions

by Waya Rae Hail

The Oregon Columbia Regional Group (OCRG) knows how to rise to a challenge. Those acquainted with what we have been doing know that 2012 and the first seven months of 2013 have brought about change, growth, and the building of positive relationships. Needless to say, the dynamics of all of this have manifested themselves in some huge ways.

Following the example of a bronze Braille American flag being placed at Arlington National Cemetery in 2008, our regional group initiated the process of placing Braille American flags at the three national cemeteries located within the boundaries of our region.

Projects this far-reaching require an abundance of connections that involve relationship building and the establishment of partnerships. Also important is the securing of permissions through various chains of commands and organizations. This process actually began with discussions at the OCRG Executive Board level, conversations about the possibility with the Kansas Braille Transcription Institute (KBTI), and a membership vote for the project at an OCRG meeting.

Willamette National Cemetery in Portland is the largest within the regional group boundaries. Cemetery Director George Allen was contacted and thus began the permission process through his chains of command, clearing the way for Braille American Flags to be placed in four national cemeteries in Washington and Oregon. Roger Huntley, Willamette National Cemetery Assistant Director, then made the arrangements for mounting the bronze Braille American flag, believed to be the first one on the West Coast!

During roughly the same time period, I met with then Director of the Portland VA Medical Center John Patrick to seek permission for placement of a similar indoor version of the Braille American Flag in the lobby of the facility.

With the cooperation and support of the BVA OCRG Auxiliary, October 15 of last year became not only White Cane Day but also the day on which these first two Braille American Flag dedications would occur.

Rae Hail stands next to newly placed Braille flag in hospital lobby following dedicatory ceremony.
Rae Hail stands next to newly placed Braille flag in hospital lobby following dedicatory ceremony.

At 10:00 a.m., an Honor Guard flanked Old Glory and the Braille American Flag at the highest point of Willamette National Cemetery. The dedication brought Allen, many of our blinded veterans and their families, VIST Coordinator Jodi Roth, and many brothers and sisters from the Oregon Department of the Military Order of the Purple Heart and its Ladies Auxiliary. To close the dedication, Old Glory was retired and a new flag was raised. The newly dedicated Braille American Flag stood strong during the transition.

Joined by much of the same contingency, we then made our way to the medical center. Our Auxiliary had set up a display and information table in the lobby next to the new Braille American Flag. With the assistance of Acting Director David Stockwell and Assistant Director Frederick White, OCRG saluted and dedicated its second Braille flag at 2:00 p.m. The National Anthem and other patriotic music were played by a VA volunteer.

Several amazing events occurred at these two dedication ceremonies: first, the emotion shown by some of the blinded veterans as they felt the flag and read the Pledge of Allegiance in Braille – many for the first time in several years; secondly, the support and encouragement given by our brothers and sisters in the Military Order of the Purple Heart and its Auxiliary-and also by our own OCRG – BVAA; thirdly, the cooperation and genuine appreciation demonstrated by the entire staffs of both the Willamette National Cemetery and the Portland VA Medical Center; and fourth, the profound quiet of the entire lobby of the medical center as those present saluted, cited the Pledge of Allegiance, and joined in to sing The Star Spangled Banner.

The responses and comments by a number of people attending one or both of the ceremonies were very special. One unknown veteran approached officers of the OCRG. He mentioned that he had loved what we had done that day, asked how often we do something similar, and expressed hope that we would put on this kind of patriotic ceremony several times a year.

The day following these ceremonies, OCRG was approached by the Newport, Oregon, American Legion Post 116 Auxiliary asking for help in hoisting a Braille American flag on the group’s flag base overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The group raffled an afghan made by June Brigadier, a 90-year-old blinded veteran from Florida. The afghan had initially been donated and purchased at the BVAA Silent Auction in Galveston. Proceeds from the American Legion Auxiliary raffle paid for the new flag and the upgrading of the base. This Braille American flag was dedicated at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 2012 at the American Legion Hall with Legion members, community members, dignitaries, OCRG blinded veterans and their families, and other blind Americans who live on the Oregon Coast all present to witness the event.America the Beautiful and other patriotic music were played by Kin and Pam Edwards, veteran/patriot musicians from Oregon. Other new flags at the American Legion were also dedicated.

OCRG placed a fourth flag at the Oregon State Library in Salem on February 21, 2013. This occasion was coordinated with Elke Bruton of Oregon’s Talking Books and Braille Services and attended by Oregon Governor John Kitzhauber, other state officials, and organization dignitaries.

In recent months, again with the support and help of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Lions Clubs, and others, Braille American Flags have also been placed in the newly expanded Roseburg National Cemetery and Eagle Point National Cemetery.

The Sutherlin (Oregon) City Park Veterans Memorial and two guide dog campuses have also received Braille American flags. Four BVA regional groups from the Northwest have joined together to provide a flag for the American Lakes BRC. The flag will be dedicated with their new building later in 2013. OCRG continues to search out other locations for Braille American Flags in southwest Washington and Oregon with the assistance of KBTI and other “partner” groups.

The results of our efforts have exceeded our wildest expectations. More individuals and other organizations know about the Blinded Veterans Association, particularly the OCRG, and are supporting blinded veterans working for the good of other blinded veterans, all veterans, and other blind Americans – those now passed, today’s service members and veterans, and those in the future.

OCRG – BVA now challenges other BVA regional groups to serve your blinded veterans and others within your regional groups by extending yourselves and promoting the positive aspects of the Blinded Veterans Association. This can be done with Braille flags or in another unique manner that builds our organization nationally and includes our blinded veterans in their local communities.

Waya Rae Hail has been President of the Oregon Columbia Regional Group since December 2011.