Project Gemini #4 Proves Big Hit
Armed with a full itinerary of educational and cultural activities planned for their U.S. counterparts in and around London during May 18-25, Blind Veterans UK welcomed five American veterans and one active duty Army Engineer Captain with an abundance of warmth and hospitality.
The week consisted of activities such as the famous London Duck Tour, museum and historical site visits, briefings about blind rehabilitation in the United Kingdom, archery and bowling competitions, dog racing, and the best in British cuisine.
Known officially as Project Gemini, a joint initiative of Blind Veterans UK and the Blinded Veterans Association begun in 2011, the annual gathering this year also hosted two legally blind veterans from South Africa.
“Project Gemini brings us together to share the many different facets involved in losing sight while serving in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Simon Brown, one of the principal organizers of Project Gemini who also lost his sight in Iraq in 2006. “It’s an invaluable opportunity to share ideas about rehabilitation as well as our own experiences and emotions.”
This year’s Project Gemini activities also attracted the attention of various British media outlets. Interviews with both British and American participants were aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the British Forces Broadcasting Services (BFBS).
Retired Army Major and veteran Dr. Tom Zampieri, one of the six legally blind himself, coordinated the trip. Other participants included active duty Army Captain Bogart, First Sergeant Wallace (Ret.), Specialist Wilson (Ret.), and Corporal Fugate (Ret.), all of whom were injured in Iraq. BVA Director of Government Relations and retired Navy Corpsman Glenn Minney, also injured in Iraq, constituted the sixth member of the group.
Dr. Greg Goodrich of the VA Poly Trauma Center in Palo Alto, California, also made the trip and addressed both the American and British participants. Part of Dr. Goodrich’s itinerary also included a meeting with Professor Sir Peng Tee Khaw at Moorfields Research Centre Monday afternoon. Dr. Goodrich is a leading authority on Traumatic Brain Injury as it relates to vision system impairments and has published and lectured on Traumatic Brain Injury vision dysfunction internationally. Professor Khaw is a renowned researcher in the area of new therapies for scarring. He is Professor of Glaucoma and Ocular Healing and an Ophthalmic Surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital and the University College of London’s Institute of Ophthalmology.
During the exchange, both groups of veterans shared helpful hints about coping with blindness and the “war stories” that are part of the adjustment processes. They compared the British veterans’ healthcare system with that of the American system operated by VA and its hundreds of component medical centers, outpatient clinics, and veterans’ homes throughout the country.
“The highlight for me had to be the simple camaraderie that we developed,” said Wallace. “It was much like the relationships we developed in the military with close quarters, common experiences to relate to one another, and opportunities to open up the lines of communication without embarrassment.”
Guided by VFW escort, left, and guide dog Fess, right, Specialist Wilson, First Sergeant Wallace, and Corporal Fugate walk toward Tomb of the Unknowns to present BVA wreath to Tomb guards.
Fugate, Wallace, and Wilson returned to Washington, DC during the Memorial Day weekend. On May 26 at Arlington National Cemetery they participated in the Memorial Day ceremony, joining other Veterans Service Organization representatives in placing a wreath at the Tomb of Unknowns following the customary speech delivered by President Barack Obama.