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Four Questions for Colin Williamson

"This is something that we should never, ever, forget."

By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission

There is a special partnership that we should all be aware of. It is taking place between our friends at the Blinded Veterans Association, here in the U.S., and the Blind Veterans UK. Both organizations are national charities for vision-impaired ex-Service men and women. Blind Veterans UK started during World War I, and BVA began during World War II.

The two groups have come together to help each other with exchange visits, in a program they call Project Gemini. These exchange visits center on joint U.S. and UK cooperation regarding military eye injuries, blind services, blast Shell Shock to TBI, and vision research today.

The first exchange visit took place last month in Washington DC, on the anniversary of WW I with the strong support of the American Embassy London, and British Embassy DC. The visit included meetings with senior DOD and VA officials, as well as meetings at British Embassy DC with Major General Richard Cripwell and his military staff, visits with U.S. Senator John Boozman, tour of Capitol, meetings at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and public education lectures on 100 year history war injuries, plus Shell Shock- verses Blast Concussions to Today’s TBI lecture from historian at Defense Center of Excellence (DCoE.) at National Medical and Science Museum.

Colin WilliamsonColin WilliamsonThe group also toured Arlington National Cemetery with the Old Guard, and were able to present a Poppy Wreath at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier, as a nod to the Blind Veterans UK origins from World War I. The next exchange visit will take place in London, May 21st to May 28th. There will be public educational seminar which will include DOD military trauma vision ophthalmologists experts on TBI- Shell Shock then to blast concussions today, vision research, and history rehabilitation services 1917 to Today. Plus the UK Surgeon General is Opening Speaker for this seminar.

We caught up with one of the Project Gemini participants, Colin Williamson, to talk about this special program.

You are with the Blinded Veterans UK, an organization that has roots in World War I. Tell us about the work that your people do.

My name is Colin Williamson and I am member of the Blind Veterans UK. I was fortunate enough to have been invited to attend the week in DC as part of the Project Gemini group from Blind Veterans UK. Tom and I actually started the programme together back in 2011 and I’m really very passionate about this project and its objectives.

Blind Veterans UK started off as St Dunstan’s charity for war blinded back in 1915. We at Blind Veterans UK believe that no one that who has served their country should have to battle blindness alone and we provide practical and emotional support for over 4500 former servicemen and women throughout the UK and beyond, regardless of how they lost their sight. We have two centres here in the UK, one on the south coast of England and one in the seaside town of Llandudno in North Wales   and we are in the process of setting up 19 new community outreach centres dotted around the UK.
You are also partnered with the counterpart organization here in the U.S., the BVA. Tell us about that partnership, Project Gemini, what your mission is, what your goals are. How does that partnership work?

We have a very special relationship with the BVA, formed over many years. In fact, since America first entered the first world war. We continue that relationship via Project Gemini, the annual exchange programme between blinded veterans from the UK, USA and South Africa. Project Gemini was initiated in 2011 and is the only exchange programme in the world that caters exclusively for blind and visual impaired ex-servicemen and women. Project Gemini’s objectives are:

  • To bring together senior military and civilian eye trauma specialists, neurosurgeons, researchers, senior government and military leaders and blinded veterans to raise awareness of the importance of research into treatments and after-care for blind and visually impaired veterans.
  • To highlight the need for better healthcare systems and advocate for more research regarding blind rehabilitation services for blinded veterans.
  • To share cultural, educational and recreational concepts and to learn from each other.
  • To seek improvements in services and benefits for blinded veterans and their families.
  • To commemorate the 2017 centenary of the U.S. entry into WWI through seminar presentations and generate PR and fundraising opportunities
  • To provide newly blinded veterans with an opportunity to interact with other veterans who are now leading independent and fulfilling lives despite sight loss.
  • To deliver a trans-Atlantic peer-to-peer support programme where veterans can serve as role models and mentors for newly blinded veterans.
  • To provide an opportunity for veterans to share their ‘war stories’ that are part of their personal adjustment to blindness and subsequent rehabilitation.
  • To highlight how common sight loss in action is; ~10% of wounded British Service personnel and 16% of wounded Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered some form of blindness.
How was your recent trip to DC? You had quite a busy schedule. Where did you go, and what did you do?

Blinded Veterans 1Project Gemini is unprecedented. It highlights the importance of cooperating with our international colleagues on joint recovery and rehabilitation and these exchanges will continue to benefit many more blinded veterans, raising awareness of the difficulties and barriers that blind and visually impaired veterans have to overcome in order to lead independent, fulfilling and useful lives.

We visited the Pentagon, Capitol Buildings, Walter Reed Military Medical Centre, Arlington National Cemetery, The British Embassy, a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Arlington, VA central office the Museum of Science and Medicine and many more interesting places.

Your group has remained close to your World War I heritage. Tell us about that relationship with the past, and why it is important to remember.

As mentioned previously, we have been supporting one another since 1917 and this relationship continues to thrive. We have close cultural, military and historical ties and the Anglo-American cooperation is unparalleled among other major powers. As I see it, we fight together on the battlefield and it is only right that we heal together. American, British and Commonwealth troops fought and died together for a common cause, and this is something that we should never, ever, forget. I’m extremely proud to be associated with the Blinded Veterans Association and I’m especially proud of the bonds forged by Project Gemini.

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