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Blinded Veterans UK & BVA/Project Gemini Exchange Visit to California

By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission

A remarkable exchange-visit took place in Southern California last month, one with deep roots to World War I.

Golf 800Project Gemini participants at the annual Major Charles R. Soltes Jr. OD Memorial Golf Event where the UK and BVA veterans honored the memory of Dr. Soltes who was killed by IED in Iraq in 2004 the first U.S. Army optometrist to do in line of duty since WW II.Six blinded military veterans from the United Kingdom, with the organization Blind Veterans UK, spent a week meeting with six American veterans, who are members of the U.S.-based Blind Veterans Association (BVA), and who also have suffered war-related vision loss.

The goal of these exchanges, called Project Gemini, is to develop public awareness within the two nations regarding vision loss resulting from trauma, and the recovery process. For the participants, there is also an emphasis on the joint historical significance of the WWI centennial and its impact on the beginnings of war blind rehabilitation programs in America in 1917.

Blind Veterans UK was founded in 1915 as a charity whose purpose was to train and support soldiers blinded in the First World War. With the help of St. Dustan's, a large charity in the UK, the Blind Veterans UK conducted training for blind UK service members, and later shared that training with American servicemembers when AEF forces required vision rehabilitation. This cooperation 100 years ago led to the development of Evergreen Army General Hospital # 7 in Baltimore, America's first major reeducation center for the blinded.

BVA traces its beginnings to a meeting of a group of 118 war-blinded servicemen on March 28, 1945, at Avon Old Farms Convalescent Hospital near Avon, Connecticut. With support from the Blind Veterans UK, the BVA was officially organized March 28, 1945, with the motto “Blinded veterans helping blinded veterans.”

The participants in the exchange-visit spent five days together in Southern California, participating in a number of activities. There was a golf event to honor Major Charles R. Soltes, the first U.S. Army optometrist-soldier killed in action while serving on active duty in Iraq. There was a visit to meet the staff at the Gary Sinise Foundation in LA, and to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which was hosted by the American Legion's Hollywood Post #43. There was also sailing with California Sailing at Newport Beach, a tour of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Major Soltes Blind Rehabilitation Center, a tour of the Long Beach Port Police Headquarters, as well as blind archery, rowing, and a White Cane Day event at the Long Beach VA Medical Center.

The BVA veterans taking part this year included; Corporal Steve Baskis, Army First Sergeant Dan Wallace, Sgt. Monaca Gilmore, Navy Petty Officer Scott Scieszinski, Lieutenant Brian "Ski" Donarski, Corporal Nate Harrison, Army Ranger Joe Amerling (Ret) volunteer, all of whom are Gulf War I or Gulf War II era veterans.

UK Participants included: Colin Williamson, president of Blind Veterans UK; Army Corporal John Robinson, Lance Corporal Mark Heaume, Trooper Darren Blanks, Corporal Christopher Strudwick, Corporal Kelly Ganfield, BVUK Sports and Recreation Manager Louise Timms.

 Conference 600Project Gemini participants at the Veterans White Cane Day forum at the VAMC Long Beach where the UK and BVA Project Gemini veterans had lecture about history of veterans blind rehabilitation from WW I to Today.

 Command Center 600The Project Gemini blinded veterans group was provided a tour of the Long Beach Port Police Command Center with briefing about security operations.

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