Four blinded American veterans of the United States Armed Forces who lost their sight and then became role models for others living with blindness will visit their counterparts in England May 20-27 at the Blind Veterans UK Brighton Centre.
All Army veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Specialist Steve Baskis, Staff Sergeant Dexter Durrante, Captain Tim Hornik, and Sergeant Mark Schrand, will travel across the Atlantic Ocean for a six-day educational exchange to share knowledge, insights, and friendship with their British comrades.
The initiative, known as Project Gemini, began last year as a joint venture of St Dunstan’s of England and the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA), headquartered in Washington, DC. In late May 2011, six veterans made a similar trip with some of the same activities that await the 2012 group. Since the first trip, St. Dunstan’s has changed its name to Blind Veterans UK.
The experience will again feature discussions about blind rehabilitation and readjustment training, vision research, and adaptive technology for the blind. The BVA group will tour London, visit the American Embassy, practice with air rifles, and engage in blind archery. Accompanied by VA rehabilitation personnel with backgrounds in vision research and best practices as they relate to battlefront eye injuries, they will also visit with British military staff and rehabilitation specialists.
During the exchange, both groups of veterans will share helpful hints about coping with blindness and the “war stories” that are part of the adjustment processes. They will compare the British veterans’ health care system with that of the American system operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs and its dozens of component medical centers, outpatient clinics, and veterans’ homes throughout the country.
Director of Government Relations Dr. Tom Zampieri, who is legally blind, will accompany the veterans. They will be joined by Col. Donald Gagliano, M.D., current Director of the joint Department of Defense/Department of Veterans Affairs Vision Center of Excellence (VCE). Gagliano is an active-duty service member of 32 years. Also participating will be Bobbi Hillen, VCE Associate Director of Rehabilitation and Reintegration representing the VA Central Office at the Center, and James Jorkasky, Executive Director of the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research (NAEVR).
Project Gemini is an outgrowth of Operation Peer Support, a BVA program begun in 2006 that brings together veterans of recent conflicts with those who have lost their sight in Vietnam, Korea, or during World War II. The objective of the program is to provide veterans who have lost their sight recently with opportunities to interact with men and women who have led happy and prosperous lives despite their blindness and who can serve as role models and mentors.
In 2008, BVA sponsored the participation of three service members from across the Atlantic at its 63rd National Convention in Phoenix. Project Gemini returned the favor with the 2011 trip to England. St. Dunstan’s was founded in 1915 shortly before the outbreak of World War I. BVA traces its beginnings back to March 28, 1945 when a group of war-blinded servicemen met at Avon Old Farms Convalescent Hospital near Avon, Connecticut.