Wyant Looks Back at 1970s FSP Resurgence

by Dr. Dennis R. Wyant, Past National President

BVA just completed the 40th anniversary of its second BVA Field Service Program (FSP), launched in 1973.

Left to right, National FSP Director and Southeastern Representative Dr. Dennis Wyant, Midwestern Representative Buddy Spivey, Western Representative Robert Utley, and Northeastern Representative Don Garner.
Left to right, National FSP Director and Southeastern Representative Dr. Dennis Wyant, Midwestern Representative Buddy Spivey, Western Representative Robert Utley, and Northeastern Representative Don Garner.

The first stage of FSP, as mentioned in the history of the Visual Impairment Service Teams (VISTs) in the previous issue of the Bulletin, had been very successful in reaching out to World War II blinded veterans. This success was the catalyst to explore and then start a new FSP to assist Vietnam-era veterans. Russ Williams, at the time Chief of VA’s Blind Rehabilitation Service and a member of the BVA Board of Directors, proposed that BVA and VA jointly contract for an outreach program for Vietnam-era blinded veterans. Once the program was approved in 1973, BVA hired me to be the National Field Service Director. I, in turn, hired Buddy Spivey, Bob Utley, and Don Garner to carry out the program that is now in its 40th year.

In 1973, there were few full-time VIST coordinators. Mr. Sandy Sacco, VIST Coordinator at the Albuquerque VA Medical Center, had an excellent reputation and was selected to provide training to the new Field Service Representatives. It was, however, Russ Williams, Buck Gillispie, Ken Wiley, and the BVA Board of Directors that gave us our real direction and knowledge.

BVA’s goal was to reach out to the total population of Vietnam-era blinded vets, which numbered approximately 700 at that time. We tried to contact each of them by phone and visit as many as possible. All veterans contacted were urged to attend one of the Blind Rehabilitation Centers, use VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation benefits, and get to know their local VIST Coordinator and Prosthetics Chief.

The Field Service Program also included in its mission the need to visit VA Regional Offices as well as VIST Chairmen, Coordinators, Prosthetics Chiefs, and other members of the Team. We found at the time that working relationships between the VA Regional Offices and the VA Medical Centers could be improved. On several occasions, we found discrepancies between the Regional Office rating and the VA Medical Center’s medical findings. The Field Reps assisted many veterans in getting their disability ratings increased and in receiving thousands of dollars in back pay.

Additionally, we found that many VA Medical Centers had VIST Coordinators in name only. Many of the social workers had full-time patient loads in addition to their ancillary VIST duties. VIST Coordinators could not prescribe a white cane, a magnifying glass, or a cassette recorder. They could only recommend these to the Chairman of the VIST, who was a medical doctor. Prosthetics could even overturn requests from the VISTs for items for blinded veterans. At that time, the Prosthetics budget was not centralized to the VA Central Office and was underfunded many times at the local VA Medical Center.

The scope of the FSP reached far beyond the VA contract. We participated in regional group meetings and established the Maryland-DC-Virginia Regional Group. We created a new interest in blinded veteran issues with the major VSOs and testified in front of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. We re-established BVA to be included for annual testimony to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

One of the secondary benefits of the FSP, then and now, is the opportunity it gives blinded veterans to succeed and develop skills for employment that provide them with increased responsibility and opportunities to advocate for veterans at other levels and in other capacities. For example, after his tenure at BVA, Don Garner served as Chief of the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Center in West Haven, Connecticut, and retired as Director of Blind Rehabilitation Service at VA Central Office. Buddy Spivey became the first Arkansas blinded veteran to serve as an Assistant State Director for Veterans Employment. He then retired as the VIST Coordinator in Little Rock. Bob Utley returned to law school. I served as National Deputy Assistant for Veterans Employment and Director of VA’s GI Bill Education Program and Vocational Rehabilitation Programs.

The BVA Field Service Program has been the springboard to scores of significant advances and positive developments for blinded veterans in the past. The same is true today and will hopefully remain as such for many years to come.

Editor’s Note: Dennis Wyant was a member of the BVA Board of Directors from 1975 until 1977. He served as National President during his final year on the Board.