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Blind veterans complete Appalachian Trail hike with 60-foot rappel
Blind veterans
Blind Appalachian Trail members Colin Penaluna, right, hugs Daniel Wallace Wednesday at Camp Frank D. Merrill following a successful rappel off a 60-foot cliff. The Blind Appalachian Trail is run by the Blinded Veterans Association Operation Peer Support to get visually impaired veterans of various abilities out to experience the Appalachian Trail. - photo by Scott Rogers FCN regional staff

After 74 miles of hiking the Appalachian Trail the past few days, what was another 60 feet down a sheer, wet cliff deep in the Lumpkin County woods?

Apparently not a lot of trouble for seven blind American and British veterans, who rappelled the daunting piece of rock at Camp Frank D. Merrill on Wednesday, June 6.

Army Rangers prepared the men for the descent and a group waited for them at the bottom, but otherwise, the veterans made the drop in about a minute — one carrying an American flag and another, a British flag, on either side.

Applause from a large group of spectators, including family, and a three-member U.S. Coast Guard Pipe Band playing bagpipes greeted the veterans as their boots hit the ground.

Blind veterans
Members of Blind Appalachian Trail tackle the 60-foot rappelling course at Camp Frank D. Merrill on Wednesday. - photo by Scott Rogers FCN regional staff
“It brought back some memories,” said Daniel Wallace, who suffered blindness after a 2003 suicide car bomb attack in Iraq.

Wallace, a Camp Merrill instructor, said he has rappelled many times — sighted and blind.

“That thing is slick, though,” said Steve Baskis, who lost his eyesight after being wounded by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in May 2008. “I’ve been on it before, but it seemed real slick today.”’

Wednesday’s rappel wrapped up a journey that began Friday, June 1, as the veterans hiked Georgia sections of the Appalachian Trail, which extends from Dawson County to Maine, with the help of sighted guides.

Operation Peer Support — a program run by the Blinded Veterans Association — sponsored the trip, which could be the first of several hikes.

“The blinded veterans will complete sections of the trail over time, around specific dates to memorialize great military accomplishments that represent the freedom gained by overcoming our adversaries,” according to the Blind Appalachian Trail website.

The June 6 completion was significant in that it coincided with the 74th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, in World War II. It was meant to symbolize Army Rangers scaling the cliffs at Normandy to destroy German gun emplacements.

“We wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for our forefathers in World War II,” Wallace said. “We wanted to remember that and pay tribute to them.”

The expedition has Hall County ties, as Joe Amerling, a Gainesville Police Department retiree, helped coordinate the effort.

“Eight months of planning went off without a hitch,” he said. “We moved every night, set up camp every night. We had guy who got a (knee) injury on day one, but he stayed (for the duration). We had a great trip, and it was flawless.”

Amerling got involved with the effort through Wallace, a longtime friend and former fellow Army Ranger.

“They started out wanting to do the whole trail,” he said in an interview last week at a social gathering for the group at his Murrayville home. “We cut it down to Georgia, to what we could support.”

The veterans come from around the county — none locally.

“We’ve all have lived through some traumatic change, and we are continuing to live through it,” Baskis said last week. “I think hiking the trail demonstrates our willingness to strive to do hard and ambitious things. We haven’t lost our vision, just our sight.”

Kelly Wallace, Daniel’s wife, was one of the family members eagerly awaiting loved ones completing the trek.

“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “(Daniel) amazes me, really. He does every day.”

Friend Victoria Doucet, whose husband helped set up camp and prepare meals along the hike, said, “This (event) is very admirable, very impressive. Disability doesn’t (deter them).”

At the bottom of the cliff, the men finished the hike exchanging hugs and getting embraces from family and other supporters. Smiles were all around.

Overall, Wallace said, “It was an outstanding experience. I think one of the biggest things I pulled from this was the camaraderie.

“It was a personal journey … but it wound up being a collective journey, as well.”