New Heights for Project Gemini

by Tom Zampieri

The week-long adventure began May 19, a Saturday, when five American blinded veterans departed Washington Dulles International Airport en route to London Heathrow International Airport.

Waiting for them across the ocean were six of their British counterparts who, while not sharing the same nationality, share a common bond because of what they have experienced and, to at least some extent, conquered.

Project Gemini, a joint initiative of BVA and Blind Veterans UK (formerly St Dunstan's), seeks to unite blinded veterans who recently lost their sight in operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. It includes an all-expense paid trip across the Atlantic Ocean to learn from others' experiences and engage one another in the process of healing.

Now in its second year, Project Gemini organizers Simon Brown and Colin Williamson welcomed BVA members Steve Baskis, Tim Hornik, Mark Schrand, Dexter Durrante, and me at the airport. We were transported to Ovingdean, approximately 55 miles outside London along the English Channel.

Arriving at Port Hall, our "Home Base for One Week," as we called it, we met Billy Drinkwater, Darren Blanks, Billy Baxter, and Ken Facal, all of whom would spend the next six days giving and sharing of themselves with us, their visitors.

After settling into our rooms and getting oriented, the group gathered in the living room to offer introductions and share histories. Each of us described how we arrived at this point in time together as veterans, united through the friendship of our two nations and through the common bond of sight loss.

We were joined on Monday by Colonel Donald Galliano, M.D. at the renowned Moorfields Eye Hospital National Health Service Foundation in London. Colonel Gagliano is the current Director of the joint Department of Defense (DoD)/VA Vision Center of Excellence in the U.S. Accompanying him was Bobbi Hillen, VCE Associate Director of Rehabilitation and Reintegration for the VA side of "Seamless Transition" issues.

Left to right, Tom Zampieri; VCE Director Colonel Donald Gagliano; Royal Center for Defense Medicine Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Jacks; Royal Center Air Vice Marshall Paul Evans; and Dr. Peng Tee Khaw. Photo courtesy of Jim Jorkasky.
Left to right, Tom Zampieri; VCE Director Colonel Donald Gagliano; Royal Center for Defense Medicine Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Jacks; Royal Center Air Vice Marshall Paul Evans; and Dr. Peng Tee Khaw. Photo courtesy of Jim Jorkasky.

Jim Jorkasky, Executive Director of the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research, was also a welcome addition to our entourage this year. Nicknamed the "American Professor" for the excitement he created by bringing together several internationally known ophthalmology researchers, Jim was a conscientious student of British history throughout the week.

Other activities on Monday included a tour of London using the famous Duck Tour. During World War II, the same vehicles used now to conduct the tours were utilized as "Higgins Landing Craft" built only for the invasion of D-Day. The group toured the Thames River and major historical sections of the city prior to the stop at Moorfields.

On Tuesday, blinded veterans of both countries toured all five floors of the Ovingdean Blind Rehabilitation Center. The facility has been used since 1937 when it opened. The first St Dunstan's facility in downtown London, which opened in 1915, ran out of space as blinded veterans from World War I began returning from the front lines. The Ovingdean Center is very different from VA Blind Rehabilitation Centers in that it offers outpatient training and long-term care with nursing home beds in addition to the residential programs.

Other Project Gemini activities included a tour of the famous Tower of London followed by a round of fish and chips, a visit to the Portsmouth Naval Yard, a bus trip to Arundel Castle and Pub, dinner at the renowned Brighton Dog Track, and an exchange of Military Unit Awards at a Friday evening barbecue. The latter event was also highlighted by an exchange of gifts and the declaration that each visiting American veteran was now an honorary member of Blind Veterans UK.

The veterans grew closer as the week progressed and each shared helpful hints about coping with blindness and the "war stories" that are part of the adjustment process for each one. They joked and laughed about some things and grew quiet when speaking of lost battle buddies that will never return. 

"Project Gemini left a profound impact on me," said Tim Hornik. "For starters, it enabled me a lot of time to sit back and discuss with our veteran peers what it is like to be visually impaired and then to be constantly amazed at how, regardless of where one might live in the world, our trials and tribulations end up being very similar."

According to Tim, the exchange helped him put his challenges in perspective and know that others had experienced some of the same feelings and emotions.

"Being able to share what we have done to overcome our trials, and receiving the true empathy from the other participants after having done so, legitimized many of the feelings I possess."

Tim also credited the travel itself with helping him feel more independent.

"This confidence derived from the fact that we were constantly on the go, using multiple forms of public and private transportation, and implementing the skills learned through rehab and peer support groups," he said.

Other participants from both the U.S. and U.K. voiced similar opinions about their week together.

"I hope this program will continue long into the future," said Steve Baskis. "It was truly amazing and memorable, allowing veterans from both countries who have sustained life-changing injuries to learn what is available to them and what can be done to recover and heal."

Those to whom we owe our gratitude are more than just a handful. Mention must be made of at least a few. Our inadequate but heartfelt thanks go to Dr. Peng Tee Khaw, Director of Research and Development at Moorfields, for visiting with the group. In his position of responsibility at Moorfields and as the recently elected President of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, he displayed great interest in making every veteran feel welcome during our visit and indicated how honored he was to have various class researchers make presentations to the Project Gemini delegation.

We are indebted also to Blind Veterans UK Cadet Youth Challenge Project Officer Colin Williamson, Director of Recreation and Sports Events Louise Timms, and Membership Manager Simon Brown for working out the details of our week and managing the events once we arrived.

Much more will be said and written about Project Gemini in the months and years to come. We can only scratch the surface and provide a peripheral view here of this inspiring initiative.