Blind vets remember D-Day through A.T. challenge and adventure
In a reversal of sorts, seven veterans repelled down the wall at Camp Frank D. Merrill (CFM) June 6 after hiking 74 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
The challenging feat was made even more-so by the fact all seven were either partially or totally blind.
But the men were “dedicated and driven to memorialize the June 6, 1944 allied forces invasion of Normandy, France,” said one of the guides for the group, Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Maj. Mike Ramsey.
The week-long trek marked the 74th anniversary of D-Day, when Rangers scaled up the heights of Pointe DuHoc, the spot where they landed on the beach under withering fire from German guns at the top of the cliff.
The event was sponsored by the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA). BVA is a service organization formed right after WWII and chartered by the U.S. Congress. It helps blinded veterans navigate the VA claims system; raises public awareness; advocates for policies and services; offers scholarships and peer support; and offers adventures and activities monthly.
“We go kayaking, hunting … We’ve been at Camp Merrill [CFM] the last four years, climbing and repelling on Mt. Yonah,” said Danny Wallace, National Sgt. of Arms, Treasurer and Chairman for Operation Peer Support for the organization.
Wallace himself served 20-plus years before being wounded in 2003 by a suicide car bomb attack in Iraq. He lost the sight in his right eye and partially in his left.
When the idea for the Appalachian Trail adventure came up, Wallace reached out to his old platoon sergeant from his own CFM days, Joe Amerling, for help. Amerling is an advisor on the Blind Endeavors Foundation board, a 501c3 formed by blind veteran Steve Baskis “to challenge and inspire people of all abilities to explore new ways of living through movement,” states its website.
Amerling is a “mega-volunteer” for both organizations, he said.
BVA sponsored the walk and Blind Endeavors Foundation provided transportation and support.
And the support, according to Trail walker Adam Rowland, was “amazing. It was like being at the Hilton except you were sleeping outside in the fresh air.”
When the walkers came into camp each night their tents and cots were already set up. The aroma of a hot meal greeted them, and they were sent off in the morning with a hardy breakfast.
“They told us we’d be the only people on the trail who gained weight,” Rowland said.
“This is the first time we’ve walked the Appalachian Trail and we called in the A-Team,” Wallace said.
Among that A-Team were several Lumpkin County men who acted as guides—and more than guides. Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Maj. Mike Ramsey put the operations plan together, from checking out the expected weather to what and how much to carry, resupply spots, special teams and more.
Tommy Wilburn spent a month walking each leg of the six-day hike with several partners, mapping out the timing of each section of the trail, where the best place to stop would be and checking for any impediments.
He even “practice walked blindfolded” on one of the harder legs of the trek. “I made about one mile per hour, and I needed a catcher’s mask. It was not a pretty sight,” he said. “But I think we’ve done adequate recon. I could tell you where every hooch and every water source is.”
William “Doc” Donovan did not go on the walk, but provided medical support for any major traumas that may have occurred along the way. Luckily, none did.
Along with Ramsey and Wilburn, several other Lumpkin County men acted as guides for the group. Ramsey’s son, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Joseph Ramsey; County Manager Stan Kelley; Deputy Planning Director Bruce Georgia; Kevin Connell, mountaineering trainer at CFM; LCSO Deputy Matt Cook; and Georgia’s son, Coast Guard pilot Ensign Zack Georgia.
Ramsey, Kelley, Georgia, Donovan, Connell and Wilburn all served as Rangers.
“The efforts the guides put into keeping us going … I was very impressed,” said Larry Gunter, a former C130-Crew Chief in the Air Force before losing his sight.
Although Gunter walks five-to-eight-miles every day, and also kayaks and bikes, the Trail was no easy walk, he said.
“It was taxing. It took a lot of physical and mental concentration to walk that terrain, with all the rocks and tree roots. We pushed through it with teamwork.”
The hardest part for British Army veteran Richard Cruice was the leg that included Blood Mountain.
“Fourteen miles uphill in the humidity and heat took its toll,” he said. “But it was great, start to finish. I certainly would do it again.”
The group made it to CFM right on schedule and repelled down the cliff face as the last leg of their six-day journey.
For Rowland, that was the best part of the experience.
It was “a dream come true, repelling down the wall and just being in the Ranger community,” said Rowland. “It was a blessing for me. My grandfather and uncle were Rangers. I was going to go to Ranger School but my first sergeant begged me to stay on for another deployment. I was at FOB [Forward Observation Base] War Horse when I was injured—30 days before I was supposed to come back to the States. I missed out on a family tradition.”
But he also enjoyed the camaraderie, as did other members of the hike. “There was good group bonding,” Cruice said.
“That was the best part—the camaraderie and fellowship,” Gunter agreed.
“The last couple of days it was like a platoon. We really came together. It was inspiring … and humbling. It took a lot of courage to do what they did. A once in a lifetime experience I won’t forget,” said Connell.
“It was a enlightening experience,” Wallace said. “We may have lost our sight, but we haven’t lost our vision.”