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BVA employs seven full-time staff members as National Field Service Officers. The Service Officers have been strategically placed in different geographical areas throughout the United States. Their goal is to locate and assist blinded veterans in overcoming the challenges inherent in sight loss. Since all of the Service Officers are legally blind veterans themselves, they can be effective role models in demonstrating that fellow veterans can take charge of their lives. National Field Service Officers are responsible for linking veterans with local services, assuring that the newly blinded take advantage of VA Blind Rehabilitation Services, and assisting them with VA claims when necessary. When blinded veterans are ready to return to the workforce, BVA National Field Service Officers can assist them with resources for employment training and placement.
To obtain maximum assistance from a BVA National Field Service Officer, veterans and their families should fill out as completely as possible the relevant forms. They should then make contact with the appropriate representative assigned to their state.
BVA volunteers work out of VA Medical Centers, Outpatient Clinics, and Regional Offices but are also active in their communities. The volunteers are often blinded veterans themselves but they can also be spouses, family members, and friends of BVA. They help blinded veterans obtain the assistance they need at the appropriate moments. Sometimes volunteers speak one-one-one with blinded veterans while, at other times, they listen and share ideas in groups. BVA volunteers provide information on programs and services, encouraging blinded veterans to utilize the opportunities that will help them become more independent and self-sufficient. They also demonstrate equipment and aids used by the blind.
The newest of BVA’s programs, Operation Peer Support, connects combat-blinded veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam with newly blinded veterans who have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the newly blinded have been young soldiers and Marines victimized by unfortunate encounters with improvised explosive devices or sniper fire.
The Department of Defense has confirmed that some 13 percent of all wounded evacuees from Iraq have experienced a serious eye injury, the highest percentage for any war in American history for which records are available.
Thanks to the generous support of several corporations, the initiative got started in 2005 when seven Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans and one Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) participated in the BVA 61st National Convention in Buffalo, New York. The idea is based on the notion that blinded veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam are among the few who understand what the newly blinded service members and veterans are going through and how they might better confront the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead of them.
“Physical and emotional isolation can be a huge issue for those who have only recently lost their eyesight,” said BVA Director of Government Relations Tom Zampieri, who has provided much of the impetus for Operation Peer Support. “Opportunities to connect with those who have faced these obstacles and overcome them, both at our conventions and in other settings, can be a source of comfort and inspiration.”
The process of recovery from any tragic or traumatic event is characterized by a period of grieving followed by rehabilitation and restoration. Substantial changes are required as a result of such shattering events before a meaningful and productive new life can be achieved. Similar to the grief experienced by individuals following any catastrophic event, blinded veterans must also grieve over their loss of vision. On an ongoing basis, Operation Peer Support seeks to support blinded veterans and their families who are still struggling with the difficulties associated with loss of vision.
BVA hopes to continue the tradition of providing financial support to newly blinded service members and veterans who wish to attend a national convention. The organization is also identifying additional ways and circumstances in which veterans of earlier eras can effectively connect and assist them.
Project Gemini became an initiative within Operation Peer Support in May 2011 when six U.S. blinded veterans visited their counterparts in the United Kingdom. BVA and Blind Veterans UK (formerly St Dunstan's) began the joint venture to create an opportunity for blinded veterans of both countries to meet in a relaxed environment and, formally and informally, exchange ideas and views regarding the best ways to support veterans who have lost their sight. One year later, five additional veterans made the trip. Subjects of discussion are rehabilitation and readjustment training, vision research, and adaptive technology for the blind. During the first two Project Gemini exchanges, site visits included Moorfields Dye Hospital National Helath Service Foundation in London, Hever Castle, the Houses of Parliament, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Brighton Dog Track, the U.S. Embassy, and the Tower of London. Several British blinded veterans who hosted the Americans in May 2012 will attend the BVA 67th National Convention in Galveston, Texas, as part of Operation Peer Support.
Spouses, dependent children, and grandchildren of blinded veterans are eligible for the annual Kathern F. Gruber Scholarship and Thomas H. Miller Awards to assist them with their higher education tuition. The scholarships are awarded on the basis of merit through an application process that is evaluated by a committee. Gruber and Miller scholarships are for one year only but recipients can re-apply and receive the award up to four times. The blinded veteran family member is not required to be a BVA member for the spouse or child to receive a scholarship. Qualifications for both programs are the same except for an added emphasis on music and fine arts for the Miller award.
Kathern "Kay" Gruber was one of BVA's early pioneers as an advisor to the organization and became acquainted with the organization while serving in the mid-1940s as the American Foundation for the Blind's Director of Services for the War Blind. Kay attended all of the BVA conventions for several decades, sitting through all of the Board of Directors meetings and offering counsel and advice. She also served on a key advisory group in 1948 that made recommendations to VA regarding the care and rehabilitation of the war blinded. She further assisted in the establishment of the first comprehensive Blind Rehabilitation Center at the VA Medical Center in Hines, Illinois. The BVA scholarship program was named after Kathern Gruber at the BVA 40th National Convention (1985) in San Diego, California.
For portions of four decades, Thomas H. Miller has served as an advocate for blinded veterans and their families, first as a member of the BVA Board of Directors and later as a full-time staff member of the organization. From 1979 to 1984, he occupied the elected positions of National Secretary, Vice President, and President. Shortly thereafter, he was hired as a full-time employee in 1986, assuming the post of Director of Government Relations until his appointment as Executive Director in 1994. Tom has amassed a lengthy list of contributions, accomplishments, and professional relationships that have enhanced BVA's image and prominence for years to come. His service to America's blinded veterans, and their families, is unprecedented and matched by few others. Tom was severely wounded, losing his sight in both eyes, in a landmine explosion in December 1967 while supervising the securing of an enemy minefield in Vietnam.
The center of BVA’s communications and public relations efforts nationally is the BVA Bulletin, a periodical sent in printed form to all blinded veterans and their families for whom the Association has contact information. Members only receive an audiocassette version. The Bulletin focuses on issues and events relating to blinded veterans, but also covers general topics about veterans. It strives to keep blinded veterans abreast of services, benefits, and legislation.
The publication provides as much detail as possible on issues relating to blind rehabilitation and the blind and visually impaired communities at large. As it seeks to address the concerns of BVA’s members and friends, the Bulletin serves as one of the organization’s most vital public relations tools and, more importantly, a vehicle by which the Association fulfills its Congressional charter to motivate and inspire veterans to return to their rightful place in society. The circulation of the Bulletin also provides opportunities to locate and interest potential Association members. Regional group officers, Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST) Coordinators, and the BVA general membership all use the Bulletin for such a purpose. The publication is also sent to libraries, resource centers, medical services organizations, and agencies that serve the blind nationally, locally, and on state/regional levels.
There is no charge to receive the Bulletin in print format. Increasingly popular is the reading of the Bulletin’s online version, which is compatible with Zoomtext and most screen readers for the blind and visually impaired.
Blinded veterans must on occasion travel long distances in order to attend VA rehabilitation programs, including those offered in residential Blind Rehabilitation Centers and through the shorter-term Vision Impairment Services in Outpatient Rehabilitation (VISOR). The required airfare and/or other transportation expenses can sometimes make such trips cost prohibitive for veterans with sight loss and who are in need of such training.
Blinded veterans can and do lead full and productive lives. Blindness is not an end to life but an obstacle that can be overcome with individualized rehabilitation and training. Making the public aware of these facts and the programs offered by BVA is an ongoing initiative. Each year BVA answers thousands of requests for information and participates in educational forums, expositions, and White Cane Day activities.
BVA also provides educational information to the public through newspaper releases, radio public service announcements, the BVA website, social media, email, mail, and personal interaction. BVA’s large-print membership brochure reaches out to blinded veterans throughout the country. The dissemination of educational information provides BVA the opportunity to mobilize the public to help carry out its mission to enhance the lives of America’s blinded veterans.
BVA’s 52 Regional Groups nationwide, often referred to as the heart and soul of the organization, offer blinded veterans and their families opportunities for support and friendship. Recreation, social activities, and service are all part of the work of the Regional Groups, which often set up and staff the volunteer offices in VA Medical Centers and Clinics. The first contact blinded veterans have with BVA usually involves a regional group, which can also be a reliable source of information about life-changing services and benefits.
The Hadley School for the Blind
The National Blinded Veterans Auxiliary (BVAA) was established in 1977 to educate and offer assistance to friends and family members of blinded veterans. BVAA seeks to strengthen the spirit of fellowship that naturally exists among its members. Any friends, family members, or individuals age 18 and over who are interested in helping blinded veterans are eligible for membership. Founding member Catherine McCraken Burnett, who also designed the BVAA Auxiliary emblem now part of its official flag, best summed up the Auxiliary’s mission and the character of its members when she penned the following:
BLINDED VETERANS ASSOCIATION AUXILIARY MEMBERS
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