Gemini, WWI Anniversary Unite Blinded Vets in DC
by Dale Stamper
April 6, 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the entrance of U.S. Expeditionary Forces into World War I. Through the efforts of Tom Zampieri, five members of Blind Veterans UK and four members of BVA spent a week together in the Nation’s Capital commemorating this historic event. At press time, the annual exchange in the United Kingdom is fast approaching.
Since 2011, Project Gemini has conducted an annual program in the British Isles in which representatives of Blind Veterans UK and BVA exchange information on rehabilitation and research. This year the strong connection between the two organizations, coupled with the fact that Blind Veterans UK was founded during World War I, gave rise to an action-packed week in Washington less than two months before the annual gathering in London.
Although the two organizations have different roots, Blind Veterans UK having been founded in 1915 and BVA in 1945, there was no shortage of battlefield eye injuries and vision loss among U.S. military personnel during World War I. Within our small group, therefore, there was great interest in learning how such injuries were treated in the early 1900s and what lessons were learned that affect treatment today.
This was an action-packed week as we visited the Pentagon, the Old Guard at Fort Myer, Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Capitol, the Residence of the British Ambassador, Walter Reed Hospital, and VA Central Office. We also took a tour of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
The logistical challenges of doing this with a group of blind and visually impaired individuals were made much easier by the Montgomery County, Maryland Police Department on Monday when Officers Scott Davis and Michael Chindblom brought with them a 14-passenger police van to transport everyone. On Tuesday, the Bethesda, Maryland Police Department supplied another passenger van and Officer Aaron Bailey to be our driver. Transportation the remainder of the week was provided by Joe Mornini, Executive Director of Team River Runner.
Dale Stamper, second from far right on back row, joined fellow blinded veterans from two continents April 2-8 for Project Gemini Washington, DC exchange. Left to right, Guide Joe Amerling, Exchange Coordinator Tom Zampieri, Brits Alan Walker, Colin Williamson, Dr. Renata Gomes, Sue Eyles, Steven Birkin, and U.S. blinded veterans Monaca Gilmore, Dale Stamper, and Brian Corcoran.
Retired Army Ranger and Police Officer Joe Amerling traveled to Washington from Atlanta, Georgia, to serve as a volunteer for the group. Joe provided a similar service last June during Project Gemini’s week in Chicago. He was a sighted guide and did a masterful job of keeping everything coordinated.
Our Monday morning Pentagon visit and guided tour included the wing that was reconstructed after September 11, 2001. It was a moving part of the visit for all of us.
We then went to Fort Myer, which is located immediately adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery. Our visit there consisted of a tour by two members of the Old Guard, which includes the only horse cavalry unit in the Army.
The Old Guard is the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army. It has served the nation since 1784 as the Army’s official ceremonial unit and escort to the President. The Old Guard also provides security for Washington, DC in times of national emergency or disturbance.
Another function of the Old Guard is to care for the horses and caissons used for funeral corteges at the Cemetery. Every morning, first thing, they polish all of the brass on the caissons and gear for the horses and give the horses a shower.
Full cadre of DC Project Gemini participants in the office of Senator John Boozman (R-AR). At far left is Jacqueline Garrick, most recently an official in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness at the Pentagon. Garrick assisted Tom Zampieri in developing important contacts for the Project Gemini week.
Later that afternoon we observed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. Blind Veterans UK President Colin Williamson presented a poppy wreath to the Sergeant of the Guard to be placed at the Tomb later that day. The poppy wreath was a tribute to those fallen during World War I. As I mentioned in my President’s Page, members of Veterans of Foreign Wars John Lyons Post 3150 hosted us for dinner that evening.
Tuesday started with an early morning meeting with Senator John Boozman of Arkansas. As a former optometrist who ran his own practice, Senator Boozman has been an excellent advocate for blinded veterans on a variety of legislative issues over the years. Before becoming a Senator, he served in the House of Representatives on the Veterans Affairs Committee.
Our tour of the U.S. Capitol followed the visit with Senator Boozman.
In the afternoon we visited the British Ambassador’s residence, which included a discussion of blind rehabilitation in the United States and the United Kingdom with Major General Richard Cripwell, a British Army officer who currently serves as head of the British Defense staff in Washington and as a senior Embassy Attaché.
Wednesday was our much anticipated Walter Reed visit and meetings. Navy Captain Penny E. Walter, Executive Director of the joint Department of Defense-VA Vision Center of Excellence (VCE), coordinated with the Walter Reed Public Affairs Office and Government Relations Directorate to arrange meetings with staff in the VCE, the Military Amputee Treatment Center, and the National Intrepid Center of Excellence. It was encouraging to hear how these different groups were researching battlefield trauma, prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation of ocular injuries. Our day was capped off with a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, and the World War II Memorial.
On Thursday, we again spent much of the day discussing treatment and rehabilitation of blind and visually impaired veterans. Because many of us also have hearing disabilities, a joint meeting was scheduled with Dr. David Eliason, Deputy Director of the VCE representing VA as both a liaison and a consultant, and Lynn W. Henselman, Ph.D., Deputy Director of the Hearing Center of Excellence, also representing VA.
That evening, we finally had time to relax and enjoy kayaking at the Walter Reed pool. Since none of us had any experience in kayaks, at times it seemed more like bumper cars at an amusement park! Joe Mornini and other volunteers with Team River Runner attempted to keep everyone headed in the right direction. It was a fun evening and I personally hope to improve my skills in the kayak.
The veterans wrapped up the week on Friday by spending the morning at the National Health and Medicine Museum. We were given a hands-on tour of many fascinating exhibits. The morning ended with more discussion about the changes in medicine over the past hundred years since World War I.
Travel expenses for the British participants were made possible by an American Embassy London exchange grant related to the centennial commemoration of World War I. The American Academy of Ophthalmology has also supported Project Gemini through a grant to BVA’s Operation Peer Support program, which provides a pool from which Project Gemini participants are selected to participate.
The Project Gemini initiative seeks to foster mutual respect and understanding between the two allied nations as participants establish new friendships, share knowledge of blind and visually impaired rehabilitation services, and exchange insights and personal experiences regarding their own adjustment to blindness. These aims were met in full for me personally during our week in Washington as they have been for many of our blinded veterans during visits to Great Britain and last year’s exchange in Chicago.
The time and labor required to produce and print the BVA Bulletin make it impossible to report on the Project Gemini week in the UK until our July-August issue. Without knowing the details of this year’s exchange, we are aware at press time that the group embarked on May 20 and returned May 28. Based on past experience, we trust that Operation Iraqi Freedom 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 enjoyed the same rewarding and fulfilling experiences as I did in Washington, DC. Tom Zampieri coordinated the trip for the seventh time in as many years. Although he personally enjoys everything about Project Gemini, there is still much work and sacrifice involved for which BVA is forever indebted to him.