Around BVA


Revered Borinqueneers Include Known BVA Connections


Jose Antonio Santos Rolón of Naples, Florida, a member of the Florida Regional Group, and Jose Cotto of the South Texas Regional Group, both have connections to the 65th Army Infantry Regiment known as the Borinqueneers, a segregated regiment of the Army made up of mostly Puerto Ricans who served in both world wars and the Korean War.

The regiment is known for its members’ pioneering military service, devotion to duty, and many acts of valor in the fiercest of battles and most adverse conditions. It was the last segregated unit of the U.S. Military and dispelled negative stereotypes and reservations about its fighting experience.

The Borinqueneers, a term derived from the Taíno word for Puerto Rico meaning “land of the brave lord,” was officially deactivated in April 1956 as part of the reduction in forces following full racial integration within its ranks in 1953 and the end of the Korean War.

Jose Antonio, an actual member of the Borinqueneers himself, traveled to the U.S. Capitol on April 13 with several other living members of the group to receive the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their military service. The medal is one of the highest civilian awards in the country.
Jose Antonio Santos-Rolon, right, with Army Major Frank Medina during one of several events in the Nation’s Capital April 13.
Jose Antonio Santos-Rolon, right, with Army Major Frank Medina during one of several events in the Nation’s Capital April 13.

Jose Cotto’s connection was his participation on the national executive committee that set in motion the effort to make possible the award to the Borinqueneers. (see “Successful BVA Advocacy for Congressional Gold Medal,” BVA Bulletin, Autumn 2014).

The Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal project was important to him because his uncle and godfather were twice wounded as Borinqueneers in the Korean War. During the process of making the award a reality, he told friends and associates that the effort was a “bucket list project” for him to honor their lives. Unfortunately, for health reasons, Jose was not able to attend the ceremony hosted by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and other leaders of Congress.

A third blinded veteran, Osvaldo Alvarado of Winter Park, Florida, was also a member of the Borinqueneers. Poor health precluded a trip to Washington for him as well.

Secretary McDonald attended the event and offered remarks. In addition, he traveled to Puerto Rico two weeks later to personally deliver the Medal to members of the regiment. The presentation occurred on April 27 beneath the walls of El Morro, an imposing 16th-century citadel from whch the United States fired the first shots during World War I at a German ship leaving the U.S. territory and now a central symbol of Puerto Rico.

He also hosted a Veterans Town Hall with Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, who wrote the legislation for the Congressional Gold Medal that was signed by President Obama in June 2014. That same day he visited the Puerto Rico National Cemetery to pay his respects to the Borinqueneers who did not live to see the day that they would be recognized for their service and valor.

Bronze duplicates of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the 65th Infantry Regiment are available from the U.S. Mint in 1.5- and 3-inch sizes. The obverse design depicts a portrait of a fictional Borinqueneer. The soldiers in the background are in an inverted “V” formation, taking the high ground with fixed bayonets during an assault on the enemy during the Korean War. The inscriptions are “65th INFANTRY REGIMENT” and “BORINQUENEERS.” The crossed rifles insignia appears at the bottom of the design.

The reverse design depicts the aforementioned fort, officially known as the Castillo de San Felipe del Morro of San Juan. The inscriptions are “HONOR ET FIDELITAS,” “1899-1956,” “WORLD WAR I,” “WORLD WAR II,” “KOREAN WAR,” and “ACT OF CONGRESS 2014.”

Terry Kebbel Family Receives VIP Tour


Left to right, Drew Kebbel, Jennifer Malawey, and Terry and Maryellen Kebbel outside tech lab room named for the family at new San Francisco Lighthouse.
Left to right, Drew Kebbel, Jennifer Malawey, and Terry and Maryellen Kebbel outside tech lab room named for the family at new San Francisco Lighthouse.
BVA member Terry Kebbel, Rio Grande Regional Group, and his family took a pre-opening tour May 6 of the new San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, courtesy of Executive Director Bryan Bashin.

The new headquarters facility on Market Street is scheduled for a grand opening civic celebration on June 10 that will include remarks on the steps of City Hall by government officials followed by a “Blind and Proud Parade” with fanfare to the Lighthouse. A ribbon cutting and open house reception showcasing the new digs will be highlighted by interactive activities and demonstrations.

“The newly expanded location occupies three floors and is designed by and for people who are blind and visually impaired so that they can fully participate in the 21st century,” said Terry. “There is specially designed lighting in each work area as well as soundproofing within rooms to enhance interactions.”

Terry also describes the ergonomic and visually pleasing handrails at stairways, multipurpose meeting space that includes the latest technical features in state-of-the-art cameras, microphones, and window shades that will benefit every participant.

“The Wi-Fi network was so fast that when I updated the applications on my iPhone it was almost instantaneous!” he said.

Of special interest to Terry and his family, and a primary reason for their tour, are three rooms which have been named “Kebbel Family Tech Labs” and which have been equipped with the latest adaptive technology to assist people who are blind or visually impaired.

“The labs named for our family will have a wide variety of equipment that trainers will use to customize programs that meet the specific needs of each client in a room designed for minimum sound interference,” said Terry. “Any agency that supports people with visual impairments should definitely take the time to investigate this well-planned and well-executed model of a forward-thinking facility.”

A former power lineman, field service engineer, and automation sales manager by profession, Terry Kebbel has shared his passion and self-taught technology skills with his fellow blinded veterans for more than a decade. Last summer, he led training seminars at the BVA 70th National Convention and has testified on Capitol Hill on VA Section 508 Compliance issues. His son, Andrew, provided financial support for the new Lighthouse.

Marts, Researchers Share Center Stage at ARVO


Iraq War veteran Master Sergeant Eric Marts (Ret.) shared his story of vision loss as a featured participant in a panel discussion April 30 at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle.
Dr. Tonia Rex, Assistant Professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute, presenting at ARVO TBI session.

Dr. Tonia Rex, Assistant Professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute, presenting at ARVO TBI session. Photo courtesy of and copyright from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology 2016. Used by permission.

The discussion, entitled “What and Why: Vision and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): A View Toward Therapeutics,” was a preliminary event of the annual international conference of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO). The session first covered Traumatic Brain Injury and visual function followed by an examination of potential therapies based on disturbances in vision.

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.

Eric, a Fargo, North Dakota resident and the host of the city’s popular Saturday morning radio show “Heroes of the Heartland,” recounted in his presentation the series of combat Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) experienced in the line of duty during 2005-06. The injuries were caused by ten different close proximity blast exposures by mortar blast, rocket-propelled grenades, and some ten Improvised Explosive Devices as he rode in convoy vehicles. He is now legally blind while retaining a minimal degree of vision in one eye.
Left to right, former Seattle Seahawks quarterback and Washington Redskins head coach Jim Zorn with Tim Hornik and Eric Marts

Left to right, former Seattle Seahawks quarterback and Washington Redskins head coach Jim Zorn with Tim Hornik and Eric Marts following ARVO pre-conference session on TBI and vision loss. Photo courtesy of and copyright from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology. Used by permission.

Representative James McDermott (D-WA-7) provided opening remarks in the TBI session, addressing the need for research in the area of combat-related TBI. Dr. Donald Gagliano of Global Medical Innovation of San Antonio, Texas and an honorary member of the BVA National Board of Directors, co-moderated the session. Former NFL quarterback and head coach Jim Zorn addressed the topic of TBI and on-the-field football concussions as the session concluded.

Eric’s connection to the TBI session and the ARVO conference came through his recent participation in sporting events organized by BVA’s Operation Peer Support initiative.

Also present in the audience was BVA member Tim Hornik; Major General Nick Caplin (Ret., UK), Chief Executive Officer for Blind Veterans UK, BVA’s sister organization in the United Kingdom; and Professor Robert Scott, M.D., Medical Director at Moorfields Eye Hospital in Dubai. Dr. Scott also paid visits to the American Lakes VA Blind Rehabilitation Center and Madigan National Military Medical Center during his stay in Seattle.

“Just a brief note to sincerely thank you for organizing such a great meeting with the three-hour vision and TBI session, which will help generate further cooperation between international researchers and improved eye care for the battlefield injured,” he wrote Tom Zampieri following his visit to Seattle. “The site visits were also really inspiring, as we learned about the VA system of rehabilitation and military trauma care management.”

Louisiana Group Mingles Business and Enjoyment


“Great entertainment, wonderful food, plenty of information, reunions of old friends and the formation of new ones—what could be better?”

That question was posed by newly elected Louisiana Regional Group secretary Gary Schoelerman in describing a memorable evening for members and friends of the Louisiana Regional Group on April 30 at Crawfish Town USA in Henderson, Louisiana.

The occasion was the annual banquet of the group, which this year featured Master of Ceremonies Joe Burns, Past National President and current National Honorary Member of the Board of Directors. Joe also presented an overview of the history of BVA as part of the event’s activities. Pre-banquet proceedings consisted of the local Harris Children Trio, which entertained the crowd with French and Cajun music.

Welcoming remarks were offered by regional group president Winston Tuckerson. This was followed by presentation of the colors by American Legion Post 278 of Arnaudville, Louisiana. The National Anthem was sung by Francis LeBlanc of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, and the invocation was given by Friar Brian Webre of the local St. Bernard Catholic Church.

Other highlights of the evening included presentations by Louisiana representatives of other organizations in attendance: Affiliated Blind of Louisiana, National Federation of the Blind, Low Vision, Etc., and OrCam. BVA members in attendance were introduced to the latest magnifiers and the da Vinci Scanner, OrCam Glasses, and Project Hope.

Gary’s wife, Marelle Schoelerman, and their friends prepared and served both the main course and the desserts.

The regional group took advantage of the banquet occasion to include an official business meeting in which BVA member attendees elected their officers for the upcoming fiscal year. A delegate and alternate delegate to the upcoming national convention were also chosen.

York College Honors Ron White Service


Ron White, former member of the BVA National Board of Directors and longtime member of the New York Regional Group, received the Meritorious Award from the York College Alumni Association in a presentation at the school on May 7.

The honor was bestowed specifically for his service to the Blinded Veterans Association. The presentation was reported in the Eastern and Southeast Queens News section of the Queens Chronicle on May 13.

Prior to his election to the Board in 2006, Ron served as president of the New York Regional Group and is known in BVA circles for his popular singing voice at national conventions.

In addition to Ron’s service to BVA, he volunteers at the Brooks Memorial United Methodist Church as a teacher, choir member, food pantry worker, and mentor. He and his wife, Laverne, have been married for 27 years.

Zampieri, Marts Hit National Radio Circuit


BVA Director of District 6 Tom Zampieri and BVA member at-large Eric Marts of Fargo, North Dakota, were interviewed together on April 26 by Jim Bohannon, longtime national radio talk show host.

The interviews aired two nights later on Bohannon’s nightly program, which is broadcast throughout the country on the Westwood One Radio Network. Bohannon’s topics of discussion and guests frequently spotlight military and veterans’ issues.

“This interview came about as a result of Eric’s scheduled presentation at the ARVO conference just a few days later,” said Tom. “Jim Bohannon asked us about the significance of new technology that can treat battlefield eye injuries, such as that experienced by Eric, and we emphasized the critical need for additional combat eye trauma research and the funding needed to support such research.”

For more information about the interview, its contents, and how to access it, contact Stuart Nelson at 202-371-8880 or snelson@bva.org.

Brand New Website For Midwestern Group


Thanks to a technology savvy and creative Eileen Vasquez, member of the Minnesota Regional Group and a former BVA National Service Officer, add the Minnesota Regional Group to the list of those who now have their own website and can more freely exchange information and communication. The group launched the new site, mnbva.zohosites.com, in early April.

“Eileen has done a great job in making the site easy to navigate and clutter free while allowing for plenty of information to be disbursed and with an artistic touch,” said group president Ruben Hernandez. “We have the best of everything on our site and it’s the perfectly tooled means for connecting with our group members, their families and friends, and those out there in cyberspace who may be looking for us.”

Fidelco Highlights Joe Link, Tonka


Joe Link, Sooner Regional Group, and his guide dog, Tonka, were featured in a profile published in the Spring 2016 issue of Fidelco News, the newsletter of the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, Inc.

The profile made particular mention of Joe’s resilience in overcoming adversity both on and off the battlefield and the means by which his guide dog partners have facilitated such resiliency. The U.S. Marine Corps Major and Navy SEAL (Ret.) received Tonka in August 2014.

Joe continues to demonstrate his commitment to mentoring persons with vision loss, attributing much of his recent astounding internal fortitude to Tonka.

In addition to his service to BVA, the profile also recognized Joe’s help to newly blinded veterans as he escorts them to their appointments at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center. He also speaks regularly to children in local schools and leads by example as a member of the Blind Golf Association and the Disabled American Veterans in Oklahoma.

Leon Haith Congratulated


BVA of Wisconsin Regional Group President Gary Traynor has sent a copy of a letter of congratulations to Zablocki VA Medical Center (Milwaukee) Director James McLean to recognize 50 years of exemplary and devoted service to blind and visually impaired veterans by current VIST Coordinator Leon Haith. The letter was directed to Haith himself.

In addition to his 33 years as the Milwaukee VIST Coordinator, Haith was a Blind Rehabilitation Center instructor at Hines prior to his service in the VIST program. Gary also recognized Haith for his instrumental role in creating the current VA services in the area of low-vision rehabilitation.

“Leon, our group is so very appreciative of your service to thousands of blind and visually impaired veterans,” Gary told him in the letter. “Without your guidance, we would not have the quality of life through access to adaptive technology and training, in addition to bringing our blinded veterans together through various group activities.”

Haith was recognized by his VA colleagues at an April 18 ceremony in the Matousek Auditorium of the VA Medical Center.

“It’s like a walk in the park and seems like just yesterday that I started,” Haith was quoted as saying on a medical center Facebook post. “It’s been an honor and a privilege to serve those who have served.”