Making It Personal: 69th PVA Annual Convention

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News August 2015

Paralyzed Veterans of America’s 69th Annual Convention shows Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald what the organization is about.

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It’s common for the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) National Convention to host key dignitaries who speak about issues important to the PVA family. However, it wasn’t an ordinary speaking trip for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert McDonald when he made an extended visit to May’s 69th annual PVA Convention in San Diego.

Because of busy schedules, many convention speakers often have limited time to spend at the event beyond addressing the attendees. McDonald’s visit was anything but limited.

He started his convention visit with PVA National President Al Kovach Jr., and PVA Deputy Executive Director Sherman Gillums Jr., giving him a personal tour of the VA San Diego Healthcare System Spinal Cord Injury Center. It’s the same spinal-cord injury (SCI) center where Kovach and Gillums were treated and rehabbed after sustaining their injuries.

That evening, McDonald attended the convention’s opening reception on the USS Midway Museum’s flight deck, where he chatted with PVA members and their families, and asked what the VA can do to help them. The next day, he reiterated how the VA is focused on helping veterans during the opening speech of the convention. It was a busy and meaningful trip for McDonald.

“To be able to go through the spinal cord clinic with Al and Sherman and to hear their personal stories made it personal for me,” McDonald says. “And one of the things you learn in leadership is that it’s the stories you remember.”

Seeing The Needs

McDonald’s experience with Kovach and Gillums, as well as meeting with other PVA members, really hit home with the secretary. He saw firsthand how paralyzed veterans need care.

As he toured the VA San Diego Healthcare System Spinal Cord Injury Center, he saw and spoke to veterans who had developed pressure sores and hadn’t moved off their backside for three months. Instead, they’d been relegated to a Clinitron bed, a sand-filled bed with air pumped into it that decreases pressure on the person so he or she can lie in one spot without putting additional pressure on the sore or causing another sore to form. All the veteran can do is sit and stare at the ceiling while waiting for the pressure sore to heal.

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McDonald talked to three veterans about their care and what they thought about the VA. Some offered ideas on what the VA could do better.

Gillums and Kovach also took McDonald to a new injury room. When new SCI patients are brought in, the ceilings and walls by their bed are adorned with butterfly paintings. Green, blue, polka-dot, orange and different-colored butterflies fill the room. They represent the metamorphosis spinal-cord injured veterans go through from coming in only lying on their back, to sitting up, to then moving around in a wheelchair.

Gillums called it an unprecedented opportunity to have the senior-most decision maker in the VA take specialized services out of the abstract and meet people.

“We talk to him all the time in Washington, D.C., about the importance of preserving specialized care,” Gillums says. “But to have him actually in a center, the same center where the president, Al Kovach, and I did our recovery, I think it gave him a real eye-opener so that when we talk about these things in terms of policy and in terms of our advocacy positions, we’ve also given him a firsthand perspective of what it means to take care of veterans who rely on those services.”

Kovach thinks PVA’s relationship with the secretary really improved after the May event.

“Now we feel like we can talk at a different level with the secretary,” Kovach says. “We can start talking about specialized services and the wants and needs of our patients and he gets it because now he’s seen it.”

Bringing Up The Issues

Kovach thinks the visit helped the secretary understand what specialized care means. Kovach and Gillums acknowledged they’re more comfortable discussing issues like private sector versus public sector care, the budget for veteran care and improved care from the VA.

Speaking of those issues, McDonald addressed them in his opening speech the next day. He wants paralyzed veterans to know he’s out to help them. He says he’s not against the Choice Program; he’s for it. He wants veterans to receive care wherever they want to get it.

McDonald acknowledged the VA is in the midst of a monstrous reorganization, called “MyVA.” He wants veterans to know the VA is putting them first with its five-component strategy, including improving a veteran’s experience, achieving support service excellence, establishing a culture of continuous performance improvement, enhancing strategic partnerships and improving the employee experience by focusing on people and culture.

“We call it ‘MyVA’ because we want you to think of VA as it’s yours; it’s customized for you,” McDonald says.

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert McDonald listens to a patient’s concerns at the San Diego VA Spinal Cord Injury Center.

While he’s worked to improve the VA, he’s also been outspoken in trying to get the House to give it a better budget.

A little more than a week before the PVA convention, McDonald had spoken out against the House’s 2016 fiscal year $163.2 billion budget proposal, which cut veterans health care programs by $690 million and cut his department’s request for construction spending in half. McDonald previously noted the VA is already operating with an old infrastructure — and he wants it improved.

“In 40 years, we will have the same issues we have now; when Iraq and Afghanistan veterans get older, we’re not going to be there for them,” McDonald says. “You can’t keep kicking the can down the road.”

But managing the budget for the VA is a whole different task than when McDonald managed the budget at Procter & Gamble (P&G). He can’t shift money from one department to another when its needed like he could at P&G.

McDonald says the VA has more than 70 accounts where the money is fenced in. So, say there’s $10 billion to send people to the Choice Program, but if those people choose to stay inside VA, McDonald can’t move the money even though the VA budget was cut to help fund the Choice Program. Likewise, McDonald can’t shift the money around if more people go outside the VA and choose the Choice Program.

Kovach is equally frustrated by it.

“There’s a lot of micromanaging by Congress telling him how he has to spend his money. If you’re going to hire this man for his expertise, let him be the expert that we hired him to be,” he says. “If he says we need to move the monies around, let him move the money around. It makes no sense to have a big pot of money and not be allowed to spend it on a construction project.”

How PVA Can Help

Gillums acknowledged the competing priorities are tough to deal with and that both the VA and Congress have to be held accountable for making sure the department is properly resourced.

So what can PVA do to help? Simple, build on its advocacy positions like making sure VA health care is fully funded.

“We’re going to continue to fight to have the House and the Senate vote to pass a budget that is appropriate that will give the VA the resources it needs to operate and take care of the nine million veterans that are in the system that rely on health care,” Gillums says. “We’re also going to continue to make sure through our site visit process that health care is adequate. We’re going to monitor the care and make sure that those veterans have a voice through this somewhat tumultuous time in VA.”

Kovach remained adamant that veterans should have the choice to go with VA care. Otherwise, trouble could be ahead.

“This idea about privatizing care for veterans is really scary. There’s just nothing out there for us,” he says. “We need to make sure that if we want to have choice, that the choice is the VA, not someone out in the community.”


Touching Tour

A tour of the San Diego VA Spinal Cord Injury & Disease Center adds a personal connection to health care within the VA for Secretary Robert McDonald.

by Sherman Gillums Jr.

Between the recent passage of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act and debate over how best to proceed with the failed Denver Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) construction project, one might find it difficult to find reason for optimism in the future of VA health care. But Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) National President Al Kovach Jr., and I gave VA Secretary Robert McDonald a huge glimmer of hope during the PVA Annual Convention held in San Diego last May. We took him on a tour of the VA San Diego Healthcare System Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Center where we both were rehabilitated after being paralyzed because of traumatic cervical SCI sustained while in service as a former Navy SEAL (Al) and a Marine drill instructor.

The tour began at the front entrance of the unit where service members injured while serving at nearby bases such as Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and Naval Base Coronado start the course of rehabilitation. Al and I explained the difference between SCI rehabilitation in the VA and the private sector to the secretary, pointing out the significantly shorter and less coordinated care that typifies non-VA SCI rehabilitation. Al recalled the first time he met his primary care physician, Kevin Gerhart, MD, PhD, nearly 30 years ago, the same physician who primarily oversaw my acute treatment over 13 years ago. Gerhart, who is set to retire later this year, offered his recollection of how we began, and successfully completed, rehabilitation before moving on to achieve great success within PVA. The secretary took note of the longstanding patient-provider bond that also sets VA apart from care in the private sector.

As we walked the secretary through several inpatient rooms, the independent living apartment and the PVA chapter office, Al and I provided insights on the plans to build a new long term care SCI facility and the benefits it will offer the aging paralyzed veteran population in Southern California. The project, which is still in the design phase, saw a number of fits and starts because of budget and demand concerns, but is now set to proceed largely due to PVA’s tenacious advocacy and newfound willingness on the part of senior VA leadership to listen and respond to the stakeholders who will be most impacted.    

The tour concluded in the center’s SCI rehabilitation and therapy gym, where VA staff and patients greeted the secretary with gratitude for taking the time to visit and obtaining a firsthand perspective of how a SCI center operates. To commemorate the visit, Al and I unveiled a special edition slide board that was created by Cal-Diego PVA chapter president Duane Norman, and announced that the new slide boards would be sent to all 25 VA SCI centers in the country and Puerto Rico, thanks to PVA corporate partner Leidos. The secretary expressed his sincere thanks for the gesture and PVA’s leadership in representing the interests of paralyzed veterans across all domains of advocacy. 

Sherman Gillums Jr., serves as PVA’s deputy executive director.


The Vote Is In

Each year at the Paralyzed Veterans of America Annual Convention the board members vote on next year’s Executive Committee (EC) members. Al Kovach Jr. continues for a second year as president. David Zurfluh continues to serve as senior vice president, Tom Wheaton as treasurer, Larry Dodson as secretary and Bill Lawson as immediate past president. Serving as this year’s vice presidents are Charles Brown, Joe Fox, Ken Weas and the newest addition, Hack Albertson.

Albertson says being on the EC has been on his bucket list, and it was time to cross it off. He would like to improve transparency and processes, such as instilling change more than twice a year at the board of directors meetings.

“I think this is really a good time to be on the EC … I think we will be able to communicate and get things done,” Albertson says. “ ... I look forward to this year and being able to hopefully make a difference and help veterans like we are set up to do … I’m proud to be a part of it.”


Honoring Gwen

Gwen Davis has all the attributes of a strong leader ­— physical courage, moral courage/integrity, humility, creativity, team ability and resiliency. She’s been through a lot with Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) — and PVA honored her with an unexpected retirement plaque at May’s 69th Annual Convention in San Diego.

Davis was hired in 1991 as PVA’s meetings director and attended her first convention that year in San Diego. In 2009, she was selected as Meeting Professional of the Year by the Event Service Professionals Association for showing superior leadership and management qualities and recognizing the importance of and supporting the role of the Convention Services Manager in the meeting planning process. During that time, she also helped her father through multiple sclerosis, which he was diagnosed with in 1978. But she leaves PVA like she came in — with her first and last conventions in San Diego.

“I don’t have the words to express what a great career and a great opportunity you guys gave me when you brought me on board. You’ve not only been my boss, but you’ve seen me through some real tough times. That’s what family does,” Davis says. “When I leave, you’re going to take a piece of my heart and I’ll leave a piece of mine with you.”


2015 Awards

Speedy Award (Member) (posthumously)

Jerry L. Dugan

David Fowler

Speedy Award (Non-Member)

Siro DeGasperis

Douglas K. Vollmer

John M. Price Award

Most Outstanding

Gateway Chapter

Most Improved

Cal-Diego Chapter

Annual Volunteer Service Award

Arizona Chapter

Dwain Taylor Volunteer Services Award

Steven Kirk, Member (Central Florida Chapter)

Letitia Simons, Non-Member (Iowa Chapter)

Veterans Affairs Volunteer Service Award

Freddy Tamez

Bob Webb Excellence in a Newsletter Award

Outreach, Kentucky-Indiana Chapter

Chapter Website Award

Cal-Diego Chapter

Corporate Patriot Recognition Award


Individual Giving Patriot Award

Mike and Donna Buxton, Jeffrey M. Carlton Trust

Cliff Crase Award for Professionalism

Todd Kemery

Harry A. Schweikert, Jr.

Disability Awareness Award

Eddie and Amanda Riveira, Absolute Mobility

Sports and Recreation Award

Buckeye Chapter

President’s Award

Buckeye Chapter


2015 Resolutions

by Tom Fjerstad

This year’s Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Annual Convention set what has to be an all-time record for the fewest number of new business resolutions submitted. The number of resolutions has, although not scientifically proven, been considered by some a gauge as to how well the president and the executive director are doing. With a total of only nine resolutions submitted and three of those being withdrawn, it appears the board has a great deal of confidence in both of them. Here is the rundown on what passed.

15-M-3(S) Judicial Committee Complaint Response Time

Submitted by the Gateway Chapter, this resolution as passed grants the Judicial Committee the authority to use its discretion in allowing more time for the accused to respond to a complaint.

15-M-4(S) Spouses Committee

Submitted by the Executive Committee, this resolution expanded committee membership eligibility to the caregivers of board members.

15-M-5 PVA Corporate Patriot Award

Submitted by the Executive Director, this resolution changed the location of the formal award presentation from the PVA Annual Convention to the Mission: Able Awards Gala.

15-M-6 Chapter Website Awards Committee Composition

Submitted by the Executive Committee, this resolution designates the Director of Digital Marketing as a member of the award selection committee.

15-M-7 Gordon H. Mansfield Congressional Leadership Award

Submitted by the Executive Director, this resolution creates a new award to be presented annually to one member of Congress who exhibits strong leadership and support for PVA’s priorities in the area of veterans’ health care and benefits or disability civil rights.

15-M-8 Eliminating Financial Connection Mandate & Renaming Support Program

Submitted by the Executive Committee, this resolution made changes to the national program which provides support to our chapters.


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Making It Personal: 69th PVA Annual Convention


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