Project Gemini Opens New Doors Project Gemini Crossed Flags

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.
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 way."

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 British soil.

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 member.

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.