Unprecedented Heights For Project Gemini
Four blinded veterans representing BVA recently gathered in the United Kingdom to share knowledge, experiences, and friendship with five British blinded veteran comrades and two South African war-blinded members.
Operation Iraqi Freedom participants Army Sergeant Russ Nelson, Army Lieutenant Colonel Kathy Champion, Gulf War I U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Kevin Jackson, and Gulf War I and II Marine Corps Sergeant Dan Standage all shared their “personal war stories” in coping with blindness and their personal peer support adjustment through rehabilitation.
Army Major Tom Zampieri (Ret.) coordinated the trip on behalf of BVA’s Operation Peer Support Committee and as a member of the Board of Directors. Tom has been on the Project Gemini Exchange each of the seven years of its existence.
The seven-day program, hosted by Blind Veterans UK, occurred May 21-27 in London and Brighton, England. It had as a specific objective this year the raising of public awareness of military-related vision injuries.
As a highlight of the week, three internationally known veteran ophthalmologists joined the exchange as guest speakers at a public education “Life Beyond Sight Loss” seminar May 24 at the historic Victory Services Club in London. The six-hour seminar focused on vision loss due to blast injuries, discussing veterans’ eye trauma, Traumatic Brain Injury, vision conditions, and joint efforts with trauma research.
Minus Kevin Jackson who had encountered a delay in leaving Austin, Texas, BVA Project Gemini participants prepare to embark on their overnight ride to the United Kingdom for the 2017 edition of Project Gemini. Left to right, Kathy Champion, Russ Nelson, British Airways Customer Service Agent Iveta Turner, Tom Zampieri, and Dan Standage.
The Victory Club was once a popular World War I British Officer’s Club.
Presenters were Colonel Robert Mazzoli, M.D. (Ret.), now Director of Trauma Education at the joint Department of Defense/Department of Veterans Affairs Vision Center of Excellence; Colonel Glenn Cockerham, M.D. (Ret.), Chief of VA Ophthalmology Services; and Lieutenant Colonel Kimberly Cockerham M.D. (Ret.), Clinical Professor at the Stanford University Department of Ophthalmology. The program also included the Surgeon General for British Defense Medical Services Vice Admiral Alasdair Walker and Dr. Renata Gomes, Director of Research and Innovation at Blind Veterans UK.
At the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain the group met American Embassy senior staff consisting of Charge D’Affaires Lewis Lukins, Cultural Attaché Anneliese Reinemeyer, and Minister Counselor for Public Relations Eric Johnson. Discussions touched on the possibility of establishing a research exchange that would include Project Gemini. Today, 70 percent of those suffering from blast TBIs complain of vision problems and 15 percent of those evacuated with injuries of any kind have also sustained eye injuries on the battlefield.
As was the case with an early April Project Gemini exchange in Washington, DC (see May-June Bulletin), this year’s activities and discussions addressed the approach in treatments of eye injuries and policy goals among the countries represented. It further examined common historical events with respect to vision rehabilitation programs for veterans from World War I to the present. April 6, 2017 marked the centennial anniversary of U.S involvement in the war, a date that was noted many times during the week.
Project Gemini was initiated in May 2011. A joint initiative of the nonprofit organizations BVA, BVUK, and St Dunstan’s of South Africa, it was named for the transatlantic cable that connects the United States and the United Kingdom. The exchanges have expanded to include meetings with officials of the Department of Defense, VA, Moorfields Eye Research Center, and UK Defense medical officials.
Left to right at world renowned Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, Dr. Renata Gomes, Tom Zampieri, Colonel Robert Mazzoli (Ret.), Moorfields Clinical Researcher Edward White, Dr. Glenn Cockerham, and Moorfields Deputy Director of Research Maria Hassard.