Building Bridges in Wales and Chicago
Technology Week participants from both the United States and the United Kingdom gather outside Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Eleven Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF, Afghanistan) combat blinded American veterans spent “Technology Week” June 19-26 with six British blinded veteran comrades establishing new friendships, sharing knowledge of adaptive technology for the blind and visually impaired, and exchanging insights and personal experiences associated with their adjustments to blindness.
Members of BVA and its counterpart organization in the United Kingdom, Blind Veterans UK, gathered at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Central Blind Rehabilitation Center in Hines, Illinois, one of 13 such residential centers nationwide. The Hines facility is the oldest of the VA blind centers, having just celebrated its 68th birthday on July 4 as a training facility for blinded World War II veterans.
The advocacy efforts of BVA in the late 1940s led, in large part, to the establishment of the Hines Center. BVA pioneer Russell C. Williams was the first Chief of the new nine-bed unit.
Transportation during Tech Week to various Chicago area visits was supported by the Cook County Sheriff’s Department under the direction of Sheriff Thomas J. Dart and driver Pat McCool. The Department also provided dinner at Connie’s Restaurant. Travel support to the British participants from London to Chicago was provided by British Airways. American Airlines provided tickets for participants to see Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs take on the St. Louis Cardinals on the afternoon of June 22 at historic Wrigley Field. The airline also provided a pizza dinner at the renowned Giordano’s. Other generous supporters included the Gary Sinise Foundation, the Hines VA Medical Center which made many of the arrangements, and the North Riverside Country Club and its membership.
Behind this year’s Technology Week was BVA’s Operation Peer Support Committee, chaired by blinded veteran and Army First Sergeant Daniel Wallace (Ret.). Hines Center Director Denise Van Koevering has overseen organization of the week’s activities. Although 2016 is the fourth year that the center has hosted Technology Week for blinded veterans, it is the first year that British blinded veterans were among the participants.
Al Avina also attended Technology Week as an official participant.
Technology Week participant Eric Marts follows through on long drive using verbal instructions from sighted guide during June 23 activity at North Riverside Country Club in North Riverside, Illinois.
The group shared information about electronic mobile devices and readers. During site visits in the Chicago area, they also tested and worked with innovative instruments such as talking computers, audible money identifiers and barcode scanners, bioptic telescopes used as eyeglasses, laptop video magnifiers, hand-held libraries of audible information, mobility aids for independent living, audible health monitoring devices, and portable Global Positioning System products.
They also toured the VA Medical Center in which the Blind Rehabilitation Center is housed, visited historic sites, and participated in blind golf.
The exchange in Chicago has its roots in a joint initiative established in 2011 by the Blinded Veterans Association and Blind Veterans UK. During May 21-28, four U.S. blinded veterans were hosted at the Blind Veterans UK facility in Wales with five of their UK counterparts. Two blinded veterans from South Africa also participated.
This year’s exchange in Wales again addressed topics related to contemporary research and rehabilitation programs that are offered to veterans in the UK, the US, and, this year, South Africa. The veterans also engaged in adaptive technology activities and sports for the blind. Other highlights included a tour of the Blind Veterans UK Rehabilitation Center, visits to other nearby historic sites, paddle boarding in Colwyn Bay, and hovercraft and buggy driving in Cheshire.
During the week, the veterans from the three countries also shared helpful hints about coping with blindness and the “war stories” that are part of their personal adjustment to blindness and subsequent rehabilitation.
Director of District 6 Tom Zampieri accompanied the group as the trip coordinator for the sixth consecutive year. Tom is a member of the Operation Peer Support Committee and serves as the liaison to the Committee from the BVA National Board of Directors.
“The activities are often very exhilarating,” said Tom, referring to team-building exercises, visits to historic sites and museums, and sports competitions among the two nationalities.
“Veterans like me who hadn’t driven a car for 15 years got out on an All-Terrain Vehicle on a dirt track with an assistant giving us commands over a helmet radio,” he said. “It was crazy as some vets were going 25 to 30 miles per hour across a big field, all while the other half of the group was driving air boats on the other side of the field.”
In addition to its role as an exchange forum, Project Gemini seeks to heighten public awareness of the issues facing veterans with vision loss. The outreach of the program has widened to include sessions with officials of VA, the Department of Defense, National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research, Moorfields Eye Hospital Research Centre in London, the British Parliament, and senior UK military officials.
Excited about the possibility of driving again, even for a few minutes, Project Gemini participants such as took their sighted companions on a few wild rides at Hover Force in Frodsham, Cheshire followed by a British-style barbecue lunch. Pictured here in protective helmet and goggles is South African Neville Clarence.
“The wonderful relationship BVA has developed with Blind Veterans UK has blossomed into numerous opportunities such as the Technology Week at Hines three weeks later,” said Tom.
Still another amazing result of this relationship, an entirely unexpected one, is that two American blinded veterans living in the United Kingdom have recently obtained assistance from Blind Veterans UK as a result of referrals from Tom Zampieri.
Earlier in the spring an older Navy blind veteran received training, equipment, and prosthetic devices.
“Blind Veterans UK treated him the same as they would have treated one of their own British members,” said Tom. “Their organization is a private, nonprofit charity receiving no UK government funding so, unlike our VA, they can immediately react to anyone needing assistance in a matter of days and the case manager did exactly that in this case.
Tom said it was the second blind retired older American veteran that had been helped by Blind Veterans UK and that the organization is willing to continue helping on a case-by-case basis.
Blind Veterans UK, celebrating 101 years of service to blind veterans and families, is the British national charity for visually impaired ex-servicemen and women. Tracing its founding back to 1915 during World War I, the organization now offers free and comprehensive support to all UK blinded veterans. For additional information, visit blindveterans.org.uk.