Florida Group Commends VIST Coordinator Extraordinaire
A standing ovation by 170 blinded veterans and their family members in support of Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST) Coordinator Bruce Davis was at least one of the highlights of a Florida Regional Group luncheon meeting held at the Ocala, Florida Hilton Hotel on February 13.
The applause for Bruce began as regional group president Mike Taylor completed the reading of the text of a gift plaque and then formally presented it to him.
Bruce will complete 30 years of service in October of 2016 as the VIST Coordinator in the Gainesville, Florida, Veterans Health Care System.
“We proudly express our deep appreciation to Bruce Davis, and commend him for his many years of service toward the health and welfare of all blinded veterans in Florida,” the plaque read in part. “His consistent, dedicated, and effective support of blinded veterans has resulted in improved independence and quality of life for those not only in his own caseload but also for those beyond.”
The plaque also commended Bruce for producing a model of service that other VIST Coordinators may aspire to reach and for a high level of expertise that has qualified him to train other VIST Coordinators. The regional group also recognized him for his creativity and initiative in developing activities that have positively affected the lives of countless blindness veterans.
In a letter to Thomas Wisnieski, Director of the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health Care System, regional group secretary-treasurer Dr. George Stocking reiterated the content of the plaque.
“As the Director of the local Veterans Health Care System, you would most assuredly wish to know that you have an employee who goes above and beyond the call of duty in ensuring that his blinded veterans get the best quality of service possible,” the letter stated. “Not only does he do that for blinded veterans but for all veterans as his example extends to other employees throughout the Veterans Health Care System.”
ARVO Preliminary Event To Spotlight Research Advances
The session is a preliminary event of the annual International Conference of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO). Entitled “Vision and Traumatic Brain Injury: The Outlook for Therapeutics,” the discussion will first cover Traumatic Brain Injury and visual function followed by an examination of potential therapies based on disturbances in vision. A question and answer period is also scheduled, followed by remarks by noted former NFL quarterback and head coach Jim Zorn.
ARVO is the largest eye and vision research organization in the world. The conference is also the largest international gathering of eye and vision researchers with more than 12,000 attendees from approximately 75 countries. Official dates of the conference are May 1-5.
Blinded veteran and noted radio host Eric Marts with guide dog Corporal Deacon.
Eric is a Fargo, North Dakota, resident and the host of the city’s popular Saturday morning radio show “Heroes of the Heartland.” He will recount in his presentation the series of combat Traumatic Brain Injuries that he experienced in the line of duty during a 2005-06 tour in Iraq. The injuries were caused by ten different close proximity blast exposures by mortar blast, rocket-propelled grenades, and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) as he rode in convoy vehicles and foot patrols, resulting in him now being legally blind with a minimal degree of vision in one eye.
Representative James McDermott (D-WA-7) will provide opening remarks for the TBI session, addressing the need for research in the area of combat-related TBI. He will be followed by presenters Dr. Ann C. McKee of Boston University Pathology of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), Dr. Lee E. Goldstein of Boston University, Dr. Randy H. Kardon of the University of Iowa, Wing Commander Dr. Robert Scott of Moorfields Eye Hospital, UK; Dr. Elaine R. Peskind of the University of Washington, and Dr. Andrew T. Hardwick of The Ohio State University.
Co-moderators for both portions of the session are Colonel Donald Gagliano (Ret.) MD, first Director of the joint DoD/VA Vision Center Excellence during 2009-13; Dr. Mary Lawrence, former Deputy Director of the Vision Center of Excellence; and Dr. Tonia Rex of Vanderbilt University.
Eric’s connection to the TBI session and the ARVO conference came through his recent participation in sporting events with Operation Peer Support veterans, an initiative of BVA since 2006. Operation Peer Support seeks to link recently blinded veterans to both their contemporary peers who have experienced similar injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan and also to veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam who long ago recovered from injuries and overcame the challenges of blindness.
Present in the audience will be other BVA members accompanying Major General Nick Caplin (Ret., UK), Chief Executive Officer for Blind Veterans UK, BVA’s sister organization in the United Kingdom.
New Research Highlighted At AEVR-Hosted Hill Event
Dr. Ciolino’s research into a contact lens that increases drug-delivery efficiency and patient compliance while reducing side effects could improve outcomes in a number of diseases that often lead to major vision loss.
Corneal specialist and eye trauma researcher Joseph Ciolino, MD, who also practices at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and supervises students at the Harvard Medical School, was the featured speaker at a Capitol Hill lunch briefing organized by The Alliance for Eye and Vision Research (AEVR).
The March 17 event, held in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, addressed the topic “Deployment-Related Vision Trauma Research: Development of a Contact Lens for Drug Delivery.”
The briefing was co-hosted by the Blinded Veterans Association, Research to Prevent Blindness, and the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, and attended by Melanie Brunson, Tom Zampieri, Donald Gagliano, and Danny Wallace. ARVO President John Clark, in town visiting with members of Congress accompanied by Tom, Donald, and Danny, also attended the session.
Left to right, ARVO President John Clark, Tom Zampieri, Melanie Brunson, and Danny Wallace following military eye trauma Congressional briefing.
A DoD-identified need in treating eye trauma, Dr. Ciolino said, is the difficulty of delivering steroids to corneas that are at risk of inflammation due to trauma from combat operations, from eye diseases such as uveitis, and from post-operative complications.
Using a special polymer that is infused with medication and placed within the periphery of a contact lens, Dr. Ciolino’s research has tested the efficacy of the lens in delivering Ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic used to reduce ocular infections, and Dexamethasone, a corticosteroid used to reduce inflammation.
The results of his work so far indicate that this corticosteroid-releasing therapeutic contact lens (TCL) is more effective than conventional eye drops at delivering drugs to the eye with fewer complications and side effects, opening the door for greatly expanded treatment options, simplified treatment regimens, and better patient compliance.
In addition to the relevance of the lens to the military, Dr. Ciolino hopes to expand it to civilian uses such as treating glaucoma, which also requires repeated applications of eye drops necessary to control high intra-ocular pressures that are associated with vision loss in glaucoma patients. An ultimate goal is to develop the lens as a platform technology, making it useful in treating a wide range of ocular conditions, including diabetic retinopathy.
Sun City Outreach Proves Fruitful
Gerald Lamberg, front, and Bob Smith discuss BVA informational and promotional materials to be shared at Sun City workshop prior to arrival of local attendees.
Four BVA members supported by American Legion Post 94 of Arizona facilitated a workshop March 11 in the retirement community of Sun City West, Arizona.
The workshop, attended by approximately 30 residents of the local community, was designed to acquaint veterans who may be losing their sight with the benefits of rehabilitation programs available through VA, to let vets know there is a Veterans Service Organization in the form of a BVA that serves their needs, and to establish a presence in Sun City and vicinity that could also generate financial support to BVA in the future.
Helping to organize and then participating in the event were American Legion Post 94 Commander Gerry Berger; Vice President of the Northern Arizona Regional Group Gerald Lamberg; Gene Hansen, a member of the regional group; Past National President (1999-2001) Dr. Bob Smith, 3rd, of the Minnesota Regional Group; and Jim Justesen, also of the Minnesota Regional Group. Bob was in town visiting a college friend while Jim was also coincidentally in the area as a Sun City snowbird.
Although she was already committed to another activity on the day of the workshop, Northern Arizona Regional Group President Jhennicea Morrow also supported the effort and helped with communication.
“The intent was to get veterans who are hunkering down in their homes, perhaps with vision loss, to come out and meet their peers and get involved,” said Bob Smith. “Neighbors and spouses were instrumental in motivating some of these vets to attend the workshop.”
The program opened with Jim Justesen, who summarized developments in the area of blindness research. Commander Berger spoke on the importance of public service and cooperation and mutual assistance among veterans groups.
Gerald Lamberg addressed the roles and functions of regional groups for legally blind veterans using the Northern Arizona Regional Group as an example. Gene Hansen and Gerald both explained how VA Blind Rehabilitation Centers function, using their experiences at the Southwestern BRC in Tucson. Bob then outlined the structure of the VA Health Care System and how services to the blind fit into the system.
In preparation for the event, Commander Berger mailed out news media advisories, delivered the advisories and BVA Vision Simulator Cards personally to optometrists and ophthalmologists, put up notices in stores and on community bulletin boards, and arranged for uniformed Post 94 members to meet blinded veterans and their families as they pulled up to the building and then to escort them to the meeting room. In addition to her brief presentation at the meeting, she also staffed the registration table and brought door prizes, including two CCTVs to veterans who needed them.
“The Arizona West Valley Area outside Phoenix that includes Sun City is a senior housing mecca in which many veterans reside,” said Bob. “Even more broadly, Arizona is a veteran friendly state and the people with whom we dealt were kind, helpful, and very openly supportive of the Northern Arizona Regional Group effort.”
Excitement Building For VIPER Ride
With continued support and the co-sponsorship of his regional group, John Carter, judge advocate and chairman of the transportation committee of BVA of Wisconsin, is forging ahead with plans for an unprecedented motorcycle experience originating at the Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 21.
Anticipated to be the first annual VIPER Ride, the event is being organized by a recently formed nonprofit organization called Visually Impaired Patriots Experiencing the Road, Inc. (VIPER). It will take blinded veterans approximately 50 miles to the Town of East Troy and then back to Milwaukee at no cost.
It was by at least some coincidence that the VIPER ride will begin approximately 60 blocks from preliminary events at the BVA 71st National Convention later that afternoon.
“We would love to have some of our BVA members from other parts of the country arrive in Milwaukee on August 20 or before and join with us for this inaugural ride that we now plan to make an annual event,” he said. “Motorcycle riders describe how being on, or even around, a motorcycle makes them feel free and somehow more alive, which is a sensation that we as blinded veterans do not often experience.”
He said that VIPER, Inc. was created with hopes of providing an annual opportunity for veterans to experience that same freedom and excitement of the road, in addition to an afternoon of socializing, food, and entertainment.
The ride will be provided to the Tailgunners, the term used for a VIPER passenger on a motorcycle, trike, or sidecar rig operated by a fully qualified, licensed, and insured driver called a VIPER Pilot. Some 100-150 volunteers, referred to as the Groundcrew, will be available to provide other services, assistance, and support during the day.
While helmets will be a requirement for the ride, the Bulletin mistakenly reported in the January-February issue that the helmets would be donated by Harley-Davidson. This is not the case. The VIPER ride itself is restricted to military veterans who are blind, visually impaired, or who receive low-vision services at a VA facility. BVA membership is not a requirement.
For more information and application materials, visit www.theviperride.org, or contact John Carter directly at 414-529-0591 or firstname.lastname@example.org. There is a June 1 deadline for application and confirmation for all Tailgunners and Pilots.
BVA Honors Fallen at 50th Commemoration Event
BVA Executive Director Al Avina, National Training Coordinator Wade Davis, and Director of District 3 Pete Davis participated in a special wreath laying by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and VA Secretary McDonald at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial March 29.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, depicted at right, holds commemorative pins presented to Vietnam War era veterans, including Pete Davis, center, and Wade Davis, left.
Pete and Wade are both Vietnam era veterans who served with individuals whose names are engraved on the Wall and for whom emotion is stirred each time they visit.
The event was part of ongoing efforts to honor U.S. troops who served during the Vietnam War era through photo exhibits, solemn ceremonies, and memorials at VA facilities and cemeteries. Such efforts will continue through Veterans Day 2025.
“When Vietnam veterans came home 50 years ago they didn’t get the kind of welcome that veterans get today," McDonald said. "What Ash and I tried to do today was to welcome home all those veterans and make sure that they felt the thanks and appreciation that veterans today feel."
DoD is overseeing a 13-year commemoration to recognize those who served on active duty from November 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975, many of whom returned home from the unpopular war without fanfare or appreciation. Nine million Americans, approximately 7.2 million living today, served during that period.
Secretary McDonald previously announced that VA Central Office would join with DoD and nearly 9,000 other organizations nationwide as commemorative partners in honoring the country’s Vietnam veterans and their families.
He designated March 29, 2016 as the day VA would express its tremendous gratitude and support to the Vietnam generation of Americans through ceremonies across the nation. More than 329 medical centers, regional benefit offices, and national cemeteries had planned events for that day.
“This commemoration has special significance for those of us at VA because of our honored mission to serve those who have borne the battle,” said Secretary McDonald. “It is also an opportunity to remember our VA colleagues who served in this generation of veterans, and to extend our heartfelt appreciation to them and to their families who shared the burden of their loved one’s service.”
Blinded Veterans Accept Ranger Training Challenge
Six veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces, all legally blind and from several eras of service, deployed to the U.S. Army Mountain Ranger Training Camp April 20-24 for a test of their strength, stamina, and in some cases a little leftover courage.
Attending were Joe Burns (New Orleans, Louisiana), Kevin Jackson (Austin, Texas), Travis Fugate (Emmalena, Kentucky), Adam Rowland (Wittman, Arizona), Mark Wilson (Palmyra, Missouri), and Danny Wallace (Union, Missouri).
BVA’s Operation Peer Support initiative was the travel sponsor of the training for the second consecutive year. A similar group from BVA experienced Ranger Training Camp in 2015.
The site of the Ranger training was Camp Frank D. Merrill Military Base in Dahlonega, Georgia, located in the northern portion of the state. The base is the general meeting point for the 5th Ranger Training Battalion and a school for Rangers.
A detailed report of the camp will be provided in the May-June issue of the Bulletin.