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These combat veterans don't let being blind stop them from boating
dragon boat
Lake Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club High Performance coach Jim O’Dell keeps a steady rhythm Monday, June, 3, 2019, as a group of blind veterans paddle a dragon boat for the first time. - photo by By Scott Rogers

A group of seven American and British veterans, all blinded in some way during combat, climbed out of a dragon boat at the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club’s boathouse Monday, June 3.

They all stood in a circle, put their hands in the middle and shouted “USA” as they raised their hands to the sky.

They had just gotten back from being on the water, learning how to paddle, and were ready to cool off from the heat.

“It was so exciting,” said Monaca Gilmore, who served in the Army in Iraq in 2005. “It was an adrenaline rush.”

The group was in the area for its fifth year — trying out dragon boats for the first time — as part of a week-long event put on by the Blinded Veterans Association and Blind Endeavors, two organizations that give veterans opportunities to join in activities in which they may otherwise not get to participate.

“A lot of the events we’ll be doing is really to get those people who are visually impaired, our blind veterans, to feel more confident in more social situations,” said Thomas Zampieri, vice president of the Blinded Veterans Association.

He said when veterans are blinded in combat, they oftentimes come home and isolate themselves. They have trouble acclimating to life after being blinded.

“They just won’t go out and do things,” Zampieri said. “They wont even go to the store with their families and they become so self conscious of the fact that they have to have a cane.”

But for Steve Baskis, who was blinded while serving in the Army in Iraq in 2008, there’s not much he won’t try. That’s why he started Blind Endeavors and hopes events like the dragon boat training remind blind veterans to keep moving, no matter what.

“A lot of the things we do this week revolve around moving,” Baskis said. “I stare into darkness. I have no vision at all. I’m completely blind. So, that can influence people to be still and not do anything. So getting out and exploring the world around us helps us establish a new normal.”

The week will include things like climbing Yonah Mountain and going to a shooting range in order to help the veterans find that new normal.

“Some of the veterans here do live near water, so they can get excited from what they learn here and head home and get on the water,” Baskis said. “That could be added to their lifestyle and what they do because some veterans have a hard time figuring out what they want to do after a traumatic change.”

But as the veterans walked down to the water to get in the dragon boat Monday, it was clear what they wanted to do: paddle.

They didn’t hesitate or second-guess. Each one stepped over into the boat, paddle in hand, and began paddling to the beat of the drum.

“It’s been a fabulous experience,” said Lloyd Hanslow, one of the blinded British veterans. “It’s been absolutely an eye-opening experience.”

He was happy that everyone in the boat was able to paddle, even though most of them had no experience. He said, “Everybody just worked on the same level.”

Gilmore was happy to have that community on the water, too. But she was even happier to have it back on the shore, walking alongside her to the boathouse and in life in general.

“It brings hope to blinded veterans, who a lot of times are left behind,” Gilmore said. “And when we’re left behind and not given these opportunities, it sticks many of us deeper into depression. It lets us get out and socialize with others who are having the same issues we’re having and get a better understanding that we’re not alone. There are others out there.”

Lloyd Hanslow
Lloyd Hanslow takes hold of a paddle as instructed Monday, June 3, 2019, as he and a group of blind veterans get team-building experience and training in dragon boats at the Lake Lanier Olympic Park boathouse. - photo by By Scott Rogers