by Sam Huhn
For at least a couple of reasons, the month of March has always been an important one for the Blinded Veterans Association. Although one of the two criteria for this assertion skirted us a bit this year with our mid-winter Board meeting and testimony occurring in late February, the anniversary of BVA's founding on March 28, 1945 can never be altered.
Happy Birthday, BVA!
On that noteworthy day, now 68 years ago, approximately 100 blinded patients at Avon Old Farms Convalescent Hospital responded to a notice about a meeting that was organized by Baynard Kendrick, a staff member at the hospital and author of "Lights Out," a novel that was later made into a movie about a veteran blinded in World War II.
The March 28 meeting elected a President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, and five additional members of a Board of Directors. A legal advisor drew up the Constitution and Bylaws in accordance with their wishes and Baynard Kendrick was appointed Honorary Chairman and BVA's official Sighted Advisor.
Shortly thereafter, the Board located our first national office. It was a desk in the corner of the Gundy Tea Room in Farmington, Connecticut. According to Ray Frey, BVA's first National President, the Association proudly agreed to receive no help, financial or otherwise, from any outside source.
Ray later recounted how difficult it was for him to comprehend how he and other Board members believed that they could run BVA on a $20 initiation fee plus $5 of yearly dues. A special meeting called in January 1946, just ten months later, changed all of that. Changes included abolishing the $20 initiation fee and establishing a $1 membership fee, a determination to accept gifts and donations from nonprofit organizations, and the setting up of a trust fund with the American Foundation for the Blind.
How times have changed in some respects and how they've stayed nearly the same in many others! In the end, however, notwithstanding all that the organization has been through and confronted, here we are celebrating BVA's 68th birthday! Who can argue that the organization is not now in its golden age?
Just as it is useful for us to do some pondering, reflecting, and questioning on our own birthdays, it may be worthwhile to do the same as we remember BVA's history and accomplishments on behalf of blinded veterans. In doing so, I wish to pose three questions:
First, have you attended one of the 13 Department of Veterans Affairs residential Blind Rehabilitation Centers (BRCs)? If not, please make doing so an important part of your future plans. If you have attended a BRC, please note that BVA's advocacy served as a catalyst for its establishment and construction. When the Old Farms facility closed as a hospital, BVA urged VA to open a rehabilitation center for the adjustment and training of blinded veterans. In September 1948, the Hines BRC opened with blinded veteran Russ Williams as its first director. Russ would later serve 27 years as VA Chief of Blind Rehabilitation. As demand and need have both increased, BVA has been at the forefront of efforts to open additional BRCs at VA facilities.
Second, have you seen your Visual Impairment Service Team (VIST) Coordinator recently? VA now employs 123 full-time VIST Coordinators and 38 who work part-time. These individuals serve as the key case managers for blinded veterans nationwide. There are also 81 full-time Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialists (BROS) in the system. BVA was instrumental in establishing the VIST and BROS programs at their outset, in increasing the numbers of Coordinators at various points along the way, and in spurring legislation that would provide VA scholarships to future BROS. If you have not recently seen your VIST Coordinator or BROS, you are not taking full advantage of what BVA has accomplished on your behalf.
Lastly, what do you know about VISOR? The Visual Impairment Services Outpatient Rehabilitation Program, or VISOR, provides comprehensive low-vision and rehabilitation services to veterans with vision loss. The program typically lasts ten days. It includes HOPTEL (a hotel room within a hospital setting) service for veterans and families and follow-up to ensure the successful transfer of learned skills to the home.
In late summer 1998, the leadership of the BVA of Pennsylvania Regional Group attempted to find a home for 15 beds that were being spun off from the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Center in West Haven, Connecticut. The VA Medical Center in Lebanon seemed a likely home since it had been a previous contender for a residential BRC. Thanks to the help of dedicated VA officials and some smart politicking by leaders of the regional group, the first VISOR was born. And, thanks also to additional BVA advocacy efforts in the new Millennium, VISORs have continued to increase nationwide! It truly behooves our Bulletin
reading audience to check out this program. It may well be a perfect fit for many of you!
Truly we can stand in awe of BVA's long history of service to blinded veterans and the influence the organization has had in helping us experience a quality of life superior to that which we would have otherwise had.
On February 28, I sat at the table in our annual testimony with a representative of Wounded Warrior Project, another from American Ex-Prisoners of War, another from The Retired Enlisted Association, another from the Non Commissioned Officers Association, still another from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, another from The Military Order of The Purple Heart, and still one more from the Military Officers Association of America.
Choosing to deliver his oral testimony totally from memory, Sam Huhn rehearses major points just minutes before hearing convenes.
It was an honor for me to speak on behalf of BVA in that setting and an overwhelming feeling to know that you elected me to do so.
In my brief remarks I mentioned our strong resolve that funding for battlefield eye injury research be increased, that Traumatic Brain Injury patients be better tracked for potential vision loss, that problems with implementation of the Vision Center of Excellence be fixed, that VA ensure compliance with Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act for all electronic information affecting blinded veterans, and that VA provide beneficiary travel funding for disabled veterans otherwise unable to attend a blind rehabilitation program.
My sincere hope is that we might be as successful with the concerns I outlined this year as we have been on many occasions throughout our 68 previous years. I was honored to speak for BVA and have been privileged to serve as a National Officer and as National President.