Project Gemini III Strengthens Alliance

by Colin Williamson

On May 13 2013, President Obama welcomed Prime Minister David Cameron to the White House, where the two leaders discussed issues ranging from economic development to the unfolding conflict in Syria.

“The great alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom is rooted in shared interests and shared values, and it’s indispensable to global security and prosperity,” said President Obama as introductions were made. “But, as we’ve seen again recently, it's also a partnership of the heart."

Also speaking from the White House, Prime Minister Cameron said: "The relationship between Britain and the United States is a partnership without parallel. Day in, day out, across the world, our diplomats and intelligence agencies work together, our soldiers serve together, and our businesses trade with each other."

Gemini participants strengthened their bonds of friendship during visits to such British treasures as Arundel Castle, a restored medieval castle first established in 1067. The castle, home to priceless works of art, has been open to visitors for nearly 200 years.
Gemini participants strengthened their bonds of friendship during visits to such British treasures as Arundel Castle, a restored medieval castle first established in 1067. The castle, home to priceless works of art, has been open to visitors for nearly 200 years.

As veterans, we have served with members of America’s Armed Forces, and now, through Project Gemini, participate in the transatlantic peer-to-peer support program. British and American veterans share a great educational, cultural, and recreational alliance through which we learn from one another and adjust to sight loss.

On May 19, the Sunday following the Obama-Cameron meeting, we welcomed six members of the Blinded Veterans Association to our Brighton centre for the third Project Gemini. We were privileged to host BVA’s Executive Director, Al Avina (Alexandria, Virginia) along with longstanding friend of Blind Veterans UK and BVA Director of Government Relations Dr. Tom Zampieri (Rockville, Maryland); and BVA members Don Overton (Palm Bay, Florida); Captain Ivan Castro (Fort Bragg, North Carolina); James Nealey (Nampa, Idaho); and Sean Johnson (Aberdeen, South Dakota). The Blind Veterans UK members were Scott Wall, Chris Nowell, Karl (Charlie) Parkinson, and Ken Facal. Staff members were Simon Brown, Louise Timms, Inderpal Kallah, Esther Freeman, and me.

Dr. Zampieri described to us his perspective of the impact and implications of Project Gemini in the broader scope of American-British relations:

“Project Gemini has improved communications among our Pentagon, Department of Veterans Affairs, vision research organizations, professional organizations, and military eye care specialists in both the United States and in the United Kingdom. In a very short time we have brought together eye trauma military specialists, vision researchers, rehabilitation staff, and senior leaders to improve care and coordination of services, which is an outstanding accomplishment.

“Project Gemini and the BVA Operation Peer Support program that occurs during its national convention each August will continue to be a great shining example of two Veterans Service Organizations assisting their memberships. This will help future veterans later on as we raise the levels of awareness of what we are doing with this effort.”

After collecting the group from Heathrow Airport, we headed to Port Hall, which was our base for the week. Dumping their kits (no time to unpack!), members of the party were taken for a traditional Sunday lunch at the Smugglers Rest in nearby Peacehaven, where we enjoyed a superb meal from the Carvery, washed down with a few pints of English ale. It was a tired bunch that departed from the pub. They were then whisked back to Port Hall to unpack and have a rest before formal introductions and some relaxation time in the evening.

Monday was an early start as we headed into London for the day. Southern Rail generously supplied us with free rail tickets for the entire group and a reserved carriage with our very own refreshments trolley, which was greatly appreciated. Our first activity for the day was the now obligatory Duck Tour. This activity occurs on board a canary yellow Second World War amphibious vehicle. Passengers are taken around the Capital’s landmarks by road before finishing with a ride on the Thames.

After lunch we had a date with Baroness Kingsmill in the House of Lords for afternoon tea. The Baroness very kindly took us on a short tour of this impressive building and explained something of the history surrounding it. A traditional afternoon tea was then served in the elegant dining room and then we were invited to sit in and listen to a debate in the chambers. I’m sure I can speak for everyone when I say how much we enjoyed the visit. Many thanks indeed to Baroness Kingsmill for her generosity and hospitality. After tea, we wandered over to the Union Jack Club in Waterloo for a presentation by Matt Taylor, the marketing manager there. He spoke of the history of the club. This was followed by a meal of good old bangers and mash accompanied by bread and butter pudding!

Tuesday was spent at our Brighton centre. We took our guests on a tour of this fantastic facility. It was then off to the sports hall for an archery competition between the two organizations in order to celebrate the building’s 75th anniversary. I am pleased to report that the winners were from the Blind Veterans UK team! In the early evening we took the under cliff walk to the Marina, where we had a game of ten-pin bowling followed by dinner.

Wednesday took us to Lewes to take part in a Treasure Trail, which was tremendous fun. In the evening our group spent the night in the bar at the Brighton centre, making it possible for us to meet some of the older members and residents. Our guests were treated to Britain’s favorite dish, good old fish and chips with mushy peas and curry sauce! Thursday morning was spent at beautiful Arundel Castle and in the afternoon we made the short journey to Amberley Heritage Museum for a wander around the site and a trip on board a vintage double decker bus. For anyone who has never visited the museum, it is very interesting and a great way to spend an afternoon. In the evening we went to Brighton Dog Track, where some members of the group were invited to present trophies to the owners of the winning dogs!

On Friday we were given a “behind the scenes” tour of the Brighton Sea Life Centre, which was very well received. A big thank you is in order to Max at the Centre for making it so much fun. After lunch we headed off to the magnificent Brighton Pavilion for an audio tour of this wonderful building. If you’re ever in Brighton, please take some time to visit this extravagant palace. It is a remarkable place.

On Friday evening we had the infamous barbecue and live band at the Brighton centre, where we were entertained by the fabulous Mike and the Meerkats. The band went down really well and had everyone up on their feet! The barbecue was outstanding. Our American guests presented us with some marvelous gifts and memorabilia to hang on our “Project Gemini” section on the wall in the main floor corridor. They in turn were presented with a few tokens of our appreciation for helping to make it a great week of friendship and camaraderie. Many thanks to Ray Hazan and Robert Leader for their part in the proceedings. It was great to have Trustees Tim and Marylyn Bacon and Rear Admiral Stephen and Erica Meyer at the barbecue. It was a treat when Robert accepted a pendant from James Nealey. Robert mentioned that he had learned that although James thought himself tall, he, Robert, had been instructed to call him Shorty, which he did throughout the week. James is an impressive 6’5”!

Saturday was spent in Brighton, where a few members of the group risked injury and possible lawsuits by driving the dodgem cars on the pier. The afternoon was a mad dash to get that last-minute souvenir shopping done and pack for the journey home the following day. In the evening we went to a lovely old pub restaurant called the “Cock at Ringmer,” where we had a superb meal and Simon Brown presented everyone with novelty gifts.

All in all, another amazing week with our American friends and another fantastic event for Project Gemini! We can learn so much from one another and I believe that both organizations greatly benefit from our alliance. Long may it continue. Thanks to everyone for making it such a brilliant week: the transport drivers, those who assisted at Lewes, the staff with whom we came into contact at our Brighton centre--the PR girls at Harcourt Street, Robbie and Ray Hazan, Barbara Sweeney, Nathan Clements, Catherine Goodier, Marika Kato, Bill Lyth, Louise Timms, Simon Brown, Inderpal Kallah, Esther Freeman—and the members of Blind Veterans UK and the Blinded Veterans Association who participated in the event. You all did your part to make it another memorable occasion.

Colin Williamson is the Cadet Youth Challenge Project Officer for Blind Veterans UK and a blinded veteran himself. He was a participant in last year’s Operation Peer Support training sessions at the BVA 67th National Convention in Galveston, Texas.