Blind veterans complete Appalachian Trail hike with 60-foot rappel

 

Jeff Gill

DCN Regional Staff

 

After 74 miles of hiking the Appalachian Trail the past few days, what was another 60 feet down a sheer, wet cliff deep in the Lumpkin County woods?

Apparently not a lot of trouble for seven blind American and British veterans, who rappelled the daunting piece of rock at Camp Frank D. Merrill on Wednesday, June 6.

Army Rangers prepared the men for the descent and a group waited for them at the bottom, but otherwise, the veterans made the drop in about a minute — one carrying an American flag and another, a British flag, on either side.

Applause from a large group of spectators, including family, and a three-member U.S. Coast Guard Pipe Band playing bagpipes greeted the veterans as their boots hit the ground.

“It brought back some memories,” said Daniel Wallace, who suffered blindness after a 2003 suicide car bomb attack in Iraq. Wallace, a Camp Merrill instructor, said he has rappelled many times — sighted and blind.

“That thing is slick, though,” said Steve Baskis, who lost his eyesight after being wounded by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in May 2008. “I’ve been on it before, but it seemed real slick today.”’

Wednesday’s rappel wrapped up a journey that began Friday, June 1, as the veterans hiked Georgia sections of the Appalachian Trail, which extends from Dawson County to Maine, with the help of sighted guides.

Operation Peer Support — a program run by the Blinded Veterans Association — sponsored the trip, which could be the first of several hikes.

“The blinded veterans will complete sections of the trail over time, around specific dates to memorialize great military accomplishments that represent the freedom gained by overcoming our adversaries,” according to the Blind Appalachian Trail website.

The June 6 completion was significant in that it coincided with the 74th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, in World War II. It was meant to symbolize Army Rangers scaling the cliffs at Normandy to destroy German gun emplacements.

“We wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for our forefathers in World War II,” Wallace said. “We wanted to remember that and pay tribute to them.”

 

The expedition has Hall County ties, as Joe Amerling, a Gainesville Police Department retiree, helped coordinate the effort.

“Eight months of planning went off without a hitch,” he said. “We moved every night, set up camp every night. We had guy who got a (knee) injury on day one, but he stayed (for the duration). We had a great trip, and it was flawless.”