Project Gemini Opens New Doors
by Tom Zampieri
Six veterans of the United States Armed Forces
who have lost their sight, and have since reached out to other veterans
and their families living with blindness, visited their counterparts in
the United Kingdom May 22-28.
Project Gemini is a joint effort of
BVA and St Dunstan's. The first ever activity of Project Gemini took six
American blinded veterans, four of them blinded in recent combat
operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, across the Atlantic Ocean for six
days of educational exchange and the sharing of friendship, knowledge,
and insights with their British comrades.
The project obtained its name from the
transatlantic telecommunications cable that stretches from England to
the United States. The idea behind Project Gemini was the creation of an
opportunity for blinded veterans to meet in a relaxed environment and,
formally and informally, exchange ideas and views regarding the best
ways to support veterans who have lost their sight.
VCE Executive Officer Major Derek Johnson, left, with Lieutenant Tim Fallon outside historic Hever Castle 30 miles southeast of London. Photo courtesy of St Dunstan's
Subjects of discussion were
rehabilitation and readjustment training, vision research, and adaptive
technology for the blind.
Our party, which consisted of Roy
Kekahuna, Steve Beres, Doug Cereghin, Jeff Mittman, Tim Fallon, and me,
arrived on a Sunday morning. Despite our jet lag, we enjoyed a great
Sunday lunch at The Coach House in Rottingdean. This event set the scene
for a week of food and drink that became somewhat of a focal point over
the following days. By the end of the week, we had sampled almost every
kind of food from the standard roast dinner to fish and chips, pizza,
and Chinese and Italian dishes.
The St Dunstan's group consisted of
blinded veterans Colin Williamson, Simon Brown, Jamie Cuthbertson, Mark
Threadgold, Peter Walker, and Steve Sparks. Several volunteers and
family members, for whom we are very grateful, supported both groups.
During the week, we shared helpful
hints about coping with blindness and the "war stories" that are part of
the adjustment process. We compared the British veterans' health care
system with the American system operated by the Department of Veterans
Affairs and its dozens of component medical centers, outpatient clinics,
and veterans homes throughout the country. Because of the nature of the
settings and activities, such discussions occurred both formally and
informally, spontaneously and following preparation, and one-on-one and
in a large group format.
Included in the week's scheduled
events were recreational rehabilitation activities such as audio rifle
shooting, blind archery, a punch bag challenge, and indoor rock
climbing. The group participated in an audio tour of Hever Castle and
visited the Houses of Parliament, the Imperial War Museum, Portsmouth
Historic Dockyard, Brighton Dog Track, and the U.S. Embassy.
One of the highlights of our stay was a
final barbecue and dance in Ovingdean, where the main St Dunstan's
facility is situated. The event included a number of emotional speeches
and continued well into the wee hours of Saturday morning.
British participant Jamie Cuthbertson summed up what all of us
from both sides of the pond felt as the experience came to a close:
"Having been one of the lucky ones who took
part in the week, I'd like to say a huge thank you, on behalf of all
involved, to St Dunstan's and also to BVA for having the willingness
(and don't forget the resources) to make this fantastic week happen. We
all had a great time, we met new friends, and we hope that this won't be
the last time that blinded veterans share similar experiences in this
Project Gemini is an outgrowth of
Operation Peer Support, a BVA program begun in 2006 that brings together
veterans of recent conflicts with those who have lost their sight in
Vietnam, Korea, or during World War II. The objective of the program is
to provide OIF and OEF veterans and their families with examples of and
opportunities to interact with men and women who have led happy and
prosperous lives despite their blindness.
In 2008, BVA sponsored the
participation of three service members from across the ocean at its 63rd
National Convention. Project Gemini has now returned the favor on
St Dunstan's was founded in 1915
shortly before the outbreak of World War I. BVA traces its beginning to
1945 when a group of war-blinded servicemen met at Avon Old Farms
Convalescent Hospital near Avon, Connecticut, on March 28 of that year.
The British Broadcasting Corporation
and British Forces News both interviewed us and then ran positive
stories about the program. Because VCE Executive Officer Major Derek
Johnson was also with us on the trip, Project Gemini was highlighted in a
DoD Military Health News story online. We were encouraged to hear from
Derek that a Presidential Task Force to work on improved cooperation
with England on wounded warrior care is now under consideration.
The St Dunstan's staff provided us
with a list of 19 World War II U.S. Army war blinded veterans who were
treated there in 1943-44 just before President Franklin D. Roosevelt and
the American military developed plans for treating the growing numbers
of returning war blinded at Old Farms.
Searching our BVA membership rolls
upon our return, we found that nine of the 19 veterans treated at St
Dunstan's became members of BVA. We also learned that members of the St
Dunstan's staff visited the United States in January 1919 to talk about
the advantages of a centralized center to treat World War I blinded
veterans over sending them to various locations.
St Dunstan's President Ray Hazan has offered to make Project
Gemini a permanent fixture with a recurring program each May in the
United Kingdom. He also vowed that St Dunstan's would send two or three
war-blinded veterans to our BVA convention each August.
Operation Peer Support and Project
Gemini are two BVA outreach efforts that have yielded greater public
awareness of BVA and its mission.
We understand that better
follow-through is important once major events have been hosted under the
guise of these two programs. We are encouraged, however, by the efforts
of Mike Lewis, a war-blinded Vietnam Marine veteran and BVA life
Mike retired last October from the
Southeastern Blind Rehabilitation Center in Birmingham, where he was a
VA National Consultant for decades. In his spare time, he is doing
volunteer work for us, keeping in touch with veterans who have
participated in Operation Peer Support and attempting to locate new
veterans who can participate in the future.
The best days of Operation Peer Support and Project Gemini may well be ahead. We look forward to them.