Billy Drinkwater joined the Army in August 2002 and he went on tour in Helmand Province in 2006 and 2007 with Private Ken Facal. They experienced a horrific accident in a Taliban Compound in Helmand Province in January 2011, when an IED detonated that robbed them both of their sight. Billy shares his account:
Billy said: “It was hard training. We knew that we were all about to experience something we’d never experienced before. Having said that, we were all looking forward to doing what we were actually trained to do. I was promoted to Lance Corporal just before we went on tour. There was intense fighting almost every day. And close combat fighting too.
“I moved to a sniper platoon in 2008 and was preparing to be a sniper instructor. I was promoted in Jan 2009, summer leave 2009 and went on October tour.There was just 6 weeks to get to know the men and train them.
“When we were serving in Helmand in October 2009 it was a difficult arena. The IED threat was mega high. It was our job to push the enemy back and reassure the locals so they could get on with their lives.
“We went in to clear the compound. Other patrols had already gone in their twice. Perhaps we should have thought that a pattern had been set. It was all over in a flash.
“Ken had been in my section since Iraq. He was my front man – went with me wherever I went. He was the only one I’d trust to get the job done.
“I woke up a minute later. I couldn’t see anything. It was burning. I’d already called in, as we do, to have a chopper on standby if things got ropey in there. I was going into shock. But I remember everything. The chopper. The ambulance.
“I was in intensive care for 2 weeks and hallucinating all the way through my time in hospital. I thought Ken was dead. He actually died in my dreams. It’s only when one of the nurses said, ‘your mate’s doing okay’ that I realised he’d made it.
“I lost my right eye. There was some vision in the other and I had an operation to get rid of the debris. I saw some colours.
“At the time I didn’t have a clue who Blind Veterans UK were. I remember chatting to them though.”
“When I was discharged I went straight to Ovingdean. It was so good to ‘see’ totally blind people getting on and doing things with their lives.
Blind Veterans UK is amazing. They keep coming back to me with new ways to gain my independence. They’re like a family.
“Ken got out later. In fact, I went to the hospital to visit him whenever I could. Advising him to definitely do it; definitely get in touch with Blind Veterans UK.”
“What practical ways have Blind Veterans UK helped me? They’ve given me a CCTV Magnifier, IT course for touch typing, I’ve been skiing with Blind Veterans UK, Ken and I went to America with Project Gemini in May and I’ve been to the Blinded Veterans Association in Texas.”
Since joining Blind Veterans UK Billy has been doing his bit to give back to the charity that has supported him. Billy said “I’ve been raising money and awareness of Blind Veterans UK; running a marathon and I want to do the South Pole Trek Challenge.
“I’ve been doing everything for myself since I was 14 and I still want to. Self-independence is the biggest thing. Step-by-step I want to do other things too, travelling and more.
“In the army there are people you can always trust. There’s a close bond between us all. The sad thing is that when you get injured, you lose that. The other guys are still out there. They’ve still got work to do. When I was out there with Ken if anything did happen, I’d be injured with him. He’s a top boy. He’s the only one I could trust with the job.
“I didn’t think about it at the time… but when I was injured it really hit home what we’d both been through together. We really are like brothers. Ken’s so calm headed. Sometimes I call him when things get too much.”
If you know someone who served in the Armed Forces or who did National Service, Blind Veterans UK can help. We provide free services to veterans with sight loss, including age-related sight loss. Visit www.noonealone.org.uk or call 0800 389 7979.