Observations from Director District 6
by Tom Zampieri
In our most recent National Board of Directors meeting during the convention in Milwaukee, our District Directors voted to take turns contributing a brief article to the Bulletin. Since we now have six issues per year, the opportunity is there for each of our six District Directors to submit something once a year.
Melanie’s Legislative Update in this issue mentions the veterans who have been recently elected to Congress. A sizeable number of them are under 50 years of age. While the election of these veterans is both interesting and significant, it is also noteworthy that the percentage of Members of Congress who served in the uniformed services could slip to less than 17 percent, the lowest percentage since before World War II. The representation of veterans in Congress has decline steadily since it peaked at 74 percent for the House (1969-70) and 78 percent for the Senate (1977-78).
As few as 73 veterans will head to Washington in January. The final number will not be known until mid-December after Louisiana’s runoffs take place for the 3rd and 4th districts. The number in the Senate increases by one to 21 veterans. While the chamber lost a veteran with the departure of Mark Kirk, it gained with the elections of Tammy Duckworth and Todd Young.
Some of the decline in overall representation by veterans can be explained by an inevitable demographic shift. As a lower number of veterans exists in the general population, so it goes with veterans serving in elected office. The new Congress will not include any World War II or Korean War veterans, and the number of Vietnam veterans is down. However, the number of OIF-OEF veterans serving in Congress continues to grow, with 26 out of the 73 coming from the most recent era.
I believe that this change is significant. It means, for one thing, that our remaining World War II and Korean War blinded veterans have no peers in Congress today. From my own perspective, it also means that many of our youngest BVA members are certainly ready to provide leadership to our organization. If they can run for the U.S. Senate, win, and then perform well, they are certainly old enough and sufficiently experienced to run for any BVA officer position and then do a great job upon being elected.
Another noteworthy item, connected at least in part to the aforementioned, is a recent vote by the Operation Peer Support Committee that has resulted in the expansion of its support to all BVA members.
The intent of this new initiative is to identify, select, and support prospective leaders within BVA. Our first step is to fund from the Operation Peer Support Committee one blinded veteran from each district to attend the national convention in 2017. The support will include round trip transportation, lodging that includes all official convention dates and the evening prior, and registration fees.
We would very much like our regional groups to submit names of BVA members of any age for whom this initiative may prove appropriate. The deadline for these submissions is April 30, 2017. Before the deadline arrives, we hope that there is some discussion and deliberation in regional group meetings during January and February.
The Operation Peer Support Committee will then select a BVA member from each district to attend the 72nd National Convention with sufficient lead time to make cost-effective travel arrangements.
The guidelines for the initiative include the following: Nominee must be a BVA member in good standing, must never have attended a national convention, cannot be elected or appointed as a convention delegate, must not hold an elected regional group position at the time of nomination, and must attend all convention events open to the general membership.
District Directors must inform all regional groups within their districts about this initiative.
Some of the feedback we receive from our members is that they are unable to afford the price of attending a convention but would like to learn more about the national organization. This is one way we can help. Although we cannot fund the spouse or caregiver to travel with the veteran, we will cover everything for the veteran himself/herself: registration fee, hotel, and airfare.
BVA’s Operation Peer Support began in 2006 when a group of recently blinded service members and veterans attended our convention in Buffalo, New York. The objective of the initiative was to afford returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan the opportunity to meet and receive mentoring from veterans who had already experienced vision loss and successfully adjusted to it. The program remains vibrant today.
Physical and emotional isolation will always be a huge issue for those who have recently lost their sight. Perhaps only those who have gone through the experience can truly understand the great challenges they are facing.
Since its inception, Operation Peer Support has helped dozens of veterans and their families attend BVA’s annual convention, where they have learned more about rehabilitation options, adaptive technology for the blind and visually impaired, vision research, locating resources, educational opportunities, recreational rehabilitation events, and employment prospects.
Operation Peer Support activities have created unique bonds among veterans, both within the group of the recently blinded as well as between the younger and older generations of BVA members. This bond, coupled with the desire to strengthen the organization’s regional groups, is the motivation behind the Committee’s action to fund one blinded veteran from each district to attend the upcoming national convention.