Add Your Voice! (11/23/2015) 
   Blinded Veterans Association Legislative Updates

Add Your Voice! Stay Informed About the Latest Legislative Developments


There are many occasions when members of Congress and other public officials need to hear from individual veterans who will be impacted by the decisions they are about to make. On such occasions, you, their constituents, have much greater persuasive powers than those of us who work in Washington D.C. have. If you would be interested in receiving legislative updates by email from the BVA national office, so that you can help us make phone calls or write letters on such occasions, we’d like to hear from you. Please send an email to and include "Legislative Contact List" in the subject line. We will add your email address to our Legislative Contacts List and send you news alerts about significant legislative and policy developments. We promise not to unnecessarily clutter your inbox, but we hope to inform you and to inspire you to take action as appropriate. Thank you in advance for your interest and assistance!


 Accessibility Highlights Newly Designed Blinded Veterans Site (11/3/2015) 
   Accessibility Highlights Newly Designed Blinded Veterans Site

Accessibility Highlights Newly Designed Blinded Veterans Site

The Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) has this week unveiled a newly redesigned, fully accessible, mobile-responsive website. Users can begin navigating the site at its Homepage,

“The new site will offer previously unavailable resources, tools, and other sources of information,” said BVA Executive Director Al Avina. “It will also allow our constituents to efficiently update records, register for events, and gain access to the assistance they may be seeking for themselves or other veterans who have experienced vision loss.”

BVA’s previous site was designed before the Internet was easily accessible via tablet and Smartphone, and was not optimized for mobile users. The new site is mobile-reactive, automatically displaying a user-friendly version of the site on mobile devices.

The site is also designed for compatibility with most screen-reader applications to ensure that it is as accessible as possible for blind and low-vision users. The new design features BVA’s recently updated logo, a sleeker layout, and a more convenient navigation process.

All of the content from the old website, which spans more than five years, has been carefully preserved by BVA staff to offer a complete historical perspective on BVA’s past and present service to blinded veterans. 

Building on that foundation, the new site will feature in the coming months several useful functions for both Association members and the public, including a login section for members only where they will be able to personally update their information. An additional section will feature adaptive technology with reviews and guides written by BVA members and staff. 

“The site will continue to be a work in progress,” said Avina. “In the meantime, BVA is proud of the improvements that will better allow the organization to communicate effectively on all platforms with our members and the public.”

 BVA Names Melanie Brunson to Government Relations Post (10/1/2015) 

BVA Names Melanie Brunson to Government Relations PostBVA Director of Government Relations Melanie Brunson

Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) Executive Director Al Avina has announced the appointment of Melanie Brunson as the organization’s Director of Government Relations.

In her new role, effective October 26, Brunson will serve as BVA’s primary legislative liaison between blinded veterans nationally and the U.S. Congress. She will prepare legislative testimony, correspond with elected representatives and senators, direct the Association’s research on legislative issues affecting blinded veterans, and represent BVA in advocating for blinded veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Central Office. She will also participate in legislative policy development and analysis at BVA national conventions.

“On a national level, Melanie brings with her to BVA a wealth of knowledge and an excellent breadth of experience in her advocacy on behalf of the blind,” said Avina. “She is a most welcome and important addition to our headquarters staff as we continually strive to more effectively serve America’s blinded veterans and their families.” 

A licensed attorney, Brunson was most recently the Executive Director of the American Council of the Blind (ACB).  She joined the ACB staff in August 1998, initially serving as the organization’s Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs. She moved to the Executive Director’s position in 2003.

In 2008, Brunson was appointed by the Governor of Virginia to the State Rehabilitation Council, a federally mandated body that advises the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired on how to improve the vocational rehabilitation services it provides. She was a member of the Council for six years as she continued her employment with ACB, acting as Council Chair in 2012 and serving on the Executive Committee during her last two years.

Prior to joining ACB, Brunson lived and worked in California. She practiced law in that state for 14 years. Much of her time was spent in a private practice that emphasized estate planning for persons with disabilities and their families. In 1996-97 she worked as a Client Assistance Program Advocate, assisting individuals with disabilities with legal issues related to their matriculation of the state’s vocational rehabilitation system. From January to July of 1998, she was employed as an attorney for the Western Law Center for Disability Rights in Los Angeles.

Brunson obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Whittier College (California) and her Juris Doctorate from Whittier College School of Law. She was admitted to the California Bar in 1984 and still maintains her license to practice law in the state.

Brunson resides in Vienna, Virginia, with her husband Lyle and her guide dog Sparta. During her career she has been active in community organizations outside of her employment. She is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Alumni Association. 

The Blinded Veterans Association is the only Congressionally Chartered Veterans Service Organization exclusively dedicated to promoting the welfare of the Nation’s blinded veterans and their families. The Association completed 70 years of service on March 28, 2015. There is no charge for any BVA service and membership is not a prerequisite for assistance. For further information, call BVA at 800-669-7079 or visit

 BVA Staffer Attends VA Council of American Federation of Government Employees (9/22/2015) 
   BVA Staffer Attends VA Council of American Federation of Government Employees

BVA Staffer Attends VA Council of American Federation of Government Employees

Yesterday BVA Assistant Legislative Director Michael O’Rourke attended a semi-annual meeting and lunch event of the VA Council of the American Federation of Government Employees, which consisted of representatives of various Veterans Service Organizations and two AFGE officials. The latter were: Mike Rosenblatt, Lobbyist/Grassroots Mobilization Coordinator of the National Veterans Affairs Council and Legislative Representative Marilyn Parks. They are pictured with Mike in the attached.

Mike O'Rourke and AFGE Officials
Mike O'Rourke and AFGE Officials

During the meeting Mike asked the two AFGE officials to address BVA concerns about VA staffing issues with the following in mind: As many as 1.5 million Veterans have levels of low vision that impair their ability to perform everyday tasks. In older veterans, major causes of vision loss include age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts, stroke, and diabetic retinopathy. Some 285,000 have glaucoma. Among veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, blast-related brain injuries can be followed by vision problems such as blurred vision, double vision, sensitivity to light, and difficulty reading. Although there are 13 VA residential Blind Rehabilitation Centers throughout the country, such centers are often not filled to capacity due to staffing deficiencies.

 Blinded Veterans Association and Blind Veterans UK Attending Major Charles R. Soltes, Jr. O.D. Golf (9/18/2015) 
   Blinded Veterans Association and Blind Veterans UK Attending Major Charles R. Soltes, Jr. O.D. Golf Memorial Event on October 12, 2015

Blinded Veterans Association and Blind Veterans UK Attending Major Charles R. Soltes, Jr. O.D. Golf Memorial Event on October 12, 2015


An international group of blinded veterans will attend the Major Soltes Memorial Golf Event, taking place in Irvine, California next month. Proceeds from the event will support BVA’s free programs for blinded veterans and their families. Those who wish to support the event, held annually in memory of Army optometrist Maj. Rob Soltes, who was killed in action in Iraq in 2004, can find more information on the event’s webpage.

Veterans Representing BVA


The Reverend Robert “Dale” Stamper is a native of Turlock, California. After graduating from Atwater High School, he enlisted in the Army at age 18 and underwent basic training at Ford Ord in Monterey. He also completed three months of advanced training in engineering at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Dale went to Vietnam in the spring of 1967. On January 6, 1968, he was part of a unit assigned to replace a bridge that had been destroyed. As he scouted the area, he tripped a landmine. The explosion knocked out Dale’s right eye immediately. A small piece of shrapnel severely infected his left eye, which later had to be removed. Although the MASH unit to which he was transported saved his life, his whole body had been affected. Several broken bones and multiple surgeries were the result.

Dale’s military honors include the Purple Heart, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with Device 1960, and Marksman (Rifle M-14). Following his recovery, he completed VA Vocational Rehabilitation and one year at San Jose University. He transferred to Fresno State University, where he began a degree in psychology, and then to the Evangelical Christian College in Fresno, where he earned a B.A. in Theology with an emphasis on counseling. Dale is presently heading a ministry to Veterans with PTSD through Real Life Ministries. His advice and counsel is often sought out by his peers in the ministry. He is also regional group secretary for the Spokane Inland Empire RG and has served on the national board of the BVA as the district director for district four until he was voted in as national secretary, then served two years as national vice president and was elected president BVA August 21, 2015. He is also active in other Veterans service organization and has been the Chaplain for DAV Fort Sherman chapter nine and chapter commander.

First Sergeant (Ret.) Daniel L. Wallace enlisted in the Army as an infantryman. He attended one-stop training that included basic airborne school at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1985. Daniel’s assignments included tours with the 2-325th Airborne Infantry Regiment in Fort Bragg, North Carolina; the 1-508th Infantry in Fort Kobbe, Panama; the 5th Ranger Training Battalion of Dahlonega, Georgia; the 6th Ranger Training Battalion at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida; the 1-502th Infantry at Fort Campbell, Kentucky; an ROTC Instructor at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana; and the 1-187th Infantry at Fort Campbell. Daniel deployed twice to the Sinai (Multinational Force and Observers Duty), twice to Honduras, and once to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has served as a Rifleman, Radio Transmitter Operator, Team Leader, Squad Leader, Ranger Instructor, Platoon Sergeant, Company Executive Officer, and Company First Sergeant. Daniel was wounded by a suicide car bomb attack in Tel Al Far, Iraq, on December 9, 2003. After multiple surgeries he retired in December 2005 with more than 20 years of service. He currently volunteers as a peer mentor for fellow veterans and lives in Union, Missouri. Daniel is the current Chairman of the BVA Operation Peer Support Committee serves as the BVA National Sergeant-At-Arms.

Specialist Steven Christopher Baskis (Ret.) served in the U.S. Army from January 2007 until June 2010, when he was medically retired. He served in Baghdad, Iraq from November 2007 until May 2008 with the 4th Infantry Division, D-Company Support Training Battalion Command Personal Security Detachment.

Steve had wanted to serve in the military as his father, grandfather, and many other family members had done. He enlisted in January 2007 starting as an infantryman and eventually becoming a Green Beret. He graduated with honors from Fort Benning Infantry Training Battalion and earned a meritorious promotion. He was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas. By the end of 2007, Steve and his platoon were in Iraq and tasked to protect a General as special security detail.  Only eight months into his deployment, on May 13, 2008, everything changed for Steve. His squad was attacked while on combat patrol and a sophisticated roadside bomb sent an Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) projectile through his thickly armored vehicle, killing his friend and severely wounding him. There were multiple orthopedic injuries, facial fractures, Traumatic Brain Injury, and penetrating eye injuries.  A week later, he woke up in Walter Reed Medical Hospital, having had several emergency surgery procedures and where ophthalmologist told him he was blind because of orbital blast injuries with optic nerve damage.

After attending the Hines VA Blind Rehabilitation program, where he learned the requisite skills to live life independently over the past four years, Steve has been climbing and mountaineering around the world with other combat injured veterans. He also assisted in two international humanitarian projects. He has climbed five of the world’s highest mountains on five continents, has now participated in the U.S. Paralympics Military Program, and began his college education. A film entitled “High Ground” recently released at the Boulder, Colorado, International Film Festival documents Steve’s ascent of Mount Lobuche, one of the tallest peaks in the Himalaya Mountains. Additional information about the movie and Steve’s is available on the following page on the Army website:

1st Lieutenant Brian “Ski” Donarski (Ret.) had little patience for the challenging game of golf several years ago. Fast forward to today, and you’ll find a guy that is not only devoted to improving his personal golf game, but who also puts on golf clinics for non-profits organizations like Fisher House Foundation. What is especially extraordinary about Donarski, besides his golf game, is his volunteering by playing in golf events arranged by The Salute Military Golf Association for wounded veterans and the Major Charles R Soltes Jr. O.D. Memorial Golf Event benefit for BVA Operation Peer Support veterans.

Ski was nearly killed in 2006 while serving in Iraq. A member of Special Forces, 1st Lt. Brian Donarski, 35D, 44 years old, is a former Marine injured in Gulf War I by a blast and discharged in 1998 with a Purple Heart. Trying to join the Army after 9/11, he had to obtain four waivers to become an Army officer in 2004. His team members hit an anti-tank mine in Iraq in 2006 on convoy. He suffered debilitating and nearly fatal injuries with a stable burst fracture in his neck and bulged disks in his lower back. He also ripped his right shoulder out of joint and lost the vision in his right eye. He now wears a prosthetic soft lens in that eye due to optic nerve and brain issues. Also among his injuries was Traumatic Brain Injury.

“By all accounts of the accident, I should be dead,” Donarski said. “But for some reason, the fuel in the tanker I was carrying didn’t ignite. That’s got to mean that I’m still here for a reason.”

Like many soldiers and veterans, Donarski had trouble adjusting to life after his injuries. He used golf as a tool to help him slow down and re-acclimate while helping his fellow wounded veterans. Donarski has earned himself quite a reputation in the world of professional golf, which is especially impressive considering the handicaps with which he now plays. Golf was such a valuable therapy tool in Donarski’s recovery early on as he worked with other wounded veterans and helped them with their game. Donarski believes the rehabilitative benefits of golf can improve the mental and physical condition of wounded warriors returning from combat. Donarski has three times qualified to play in President George W. Bush’s Warrior Open, a tournament in Dallas, Texas, featuring servicemen and servicewomen who were severely wounded in the Global War on Terror. He also finished in the No. 1 spot in a tournament held in Washington, D.C. These victories qualified him to go to Scotland to play famous Kingsbarns, St. Andrews course, and several other prestigious courses. Ski is participating second time in the Major Charles Rob Soltes Jr. O.D. Memorial Golf event for the second year to be with his OIF-OEF peers with vision loss and their families and friends.

Dr. Thomas Zampieri served on active duty as a Medic in the United States Army from 1972 to 1975. Upon completing Physician Assistant training, he was an Army National Guard Physician Assistant from September 1978 to August 2000, retiring as a Major. He was a Military Flight Surgeon for 13 years. Tom is a graduate of the Hahnemann University Physician Assistant Program (June 1978). He obtained a Bachelor of Science Degree from State University of New York and worked as a Surgical Physician Assistant within the VA system for 19 years. He graduated with a Master’s Degree in Political Science from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, in 2003.

Tom completed his Political Science Ph.D. through Lacrosse University in December 2005 as a member of the National Political Science Honor Society. For 25 years he worked in a variety of clinical settings as a Physician Assistant in private practice, at university medical centers, and for the Department of Veterans Affairs at three different VA Medical Centers. He has co-authored medical journal research articles and has presented medical lectures nationally, including three VA national medical teleconferences.

Tom was employed as the Director of Government Relations for the Blinded Veterans Association from April 21, 2005 until November 23, 2013. He presented testimony before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs 21 times during his tenure. Tom made his fifth trip to the United Kingdom as the Coordinator of Project Gemini this year. He lives in Pearland, Texas. Tom serves on the BVA Board of Directors and is the Board Liaison for the BVA Operation Peer Support Committee.

Veterans Representing BVUK


Colin Williamson, British Army veteran, served in the Royal Regiment of Artillery in the U.K., Germany, and during two tours of Northern Ireland on Operation Banner. Colin’s sight loss is due to neurological damage after he suffered a trauma to the skull which resulted in five skull fractures. Army UK “Gunner” has been blind since 1995 and has served for more than 10 years on active duty. He now works for Blind Veterans UK as cadet instructor for blind veterans enrolled in a rehabilitation program and carries the following title: Communications Officer and Contributing Editor for the monthly BVUK magazine. In addition to his general job of coordinating Blind Veterans UK’s public outreach, Colin has also been the coordinator of the annual Project Gemini exchanges since May 2011. Project Gemini has now hosted 30 BVA veterans and most recently four South African veterans.

Afghanistan War (OEF) BVUK veterans British Army Corporal William Drinkwater and Corporal Ken Facal were both injured in the same Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blast and both sustained vision loss, among other severe injuries.

Billy joined the Army in August 2002. Both he and Ken began serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006 and 2007. While on a tour in the Afghan Helmand Province in January 2011 with Ken, the two experienced a horrific accident in a Taliban Compound as an IED detonated that robbed them both of their sight. Ken and Billy knew each other from the start of their time serving in Iraq together and then twice in Afghanistan. Their roles were in Black Ops, where they were responsible for clearing routes of IEDs. Together they relate the events of the day that forever changed their lives.

Ken, now 29, was 17 and in college when he decided to join the UK Armed Forces. He was too young to join the police force but decided to join the Army after seeing an advertising compaign. He served did two tours of Afghanistan and one in Iraq with the British Army. He was first injured in an IED blast in 2010 and then again in 2011. Ken was in a coma for a month after his injuries. He began his rehabilitation after meeting other BVUK members who visited him. Both Billy and Ken are active participates in several BVUK events and volunteer to help all members. They both participated in BVA’s Operation Peer Support 2012 and Project Gemini exchanges and active peer volunteers in the UK participating in sports and community events.

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Add Your Voice!

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Accessibility Highlights Newly Designed Blinded Veterans Site

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