Four Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) combat blinded American veterans will share knowledge, insights, and friendship with their British army war-blinded comrades in England May 30-June 7, 2015.
The seven-day exchange, now popularly known as Project Gemini, will be based at the Blind Veterans UK Brighton Centre outside London. Five members of Blinded Veterans UK and two South African war-blinded veterans will also join this year’s annual exchange.
Project Gemini, initiated in May 2011 and named for the transatlantic cable that connects the United States and the United Kingdom, is a joint initiative between the nonprofit organizations Blinded Veterans Association (BVA), headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, and Blind Veterans UK. The initiative seeks to heighten public awareness within the two countries of the issues facing veterans with vision loss, resulting in improvements in services and benefits for both them and their families. This year’s international airfare from Washington Dulles International Airport to London Heathrow International was donated by British Airways.
Project Gemini’s original purpose was the sharing of vision rehabilitation information among the veterans themselves. The educational scope of the program later widened to include visits and training sessions with officials of the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, and the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research.
The 2015 exchange will again address the similarities and differences in vision research and the rehabilitation training programs offered to veterans within each of the three countries represented. Adaptive technology and sports for the blind will also be discussed and put to practical use during the week.
Other highlights are a tour of the Blind Veterans UK rehabilitation center, blind archery, and blind bowling competition. Visits to the Brighton Royal Pavilion, Hastings Castle, the Imperial War Museum, and other nearby sites will also be included. On June 4 the group will tour London, the focus of which will be a special Buckingham Palace Garden reception commemorating the 100th anniversary of Blind Veterans UK. That evening the group will meet the renowned Wellington Guards and share an official “mess” dinner.
During the exchange, both groups of veterans will also share helpful hints about coping with blindness and the “war stories” that are part of their personal adjustment to blindness and subsequent rehabilitation. OIF participants are Army Staff Sergeant Jason Pepper, Army Sergeant Adam Rowland, Staff Sergeant Aaron Hale, and Marine Corporal Chris Rader. Major Tom Zampieri (Ret.), a legally blind veteran himself and member of the BVA National Board of Directors, will accompany the veterans as trip coordinator. BVA National President and Air Force veteran Mark Cornell of San Antonio, Texas, will also make the trip and experience Project Gemini for the first time.
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 during the Vietnam, Korea, and World War II eras. The objective of the program is to provide veterans who have lost their sight most recently with opportunities to interact with men and women who can, as a result of their experience, serve as natural role models and mentors.
Blind Veterans UK, formerly St. Dunstan’s, 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.