Revision & Blind Veterans UK Partnership

Blind Veterans UK (formerly St Dunstan’s) was founded in 1915 and the charity’s initial purpose was to help and support soldiers blinded in World War I. But the organization has gone on to support more than 35,000 blind veterans and their families, spanning World War II to recent conflicts including Iraq and Afghanistan.

Revision Military will be sponsoring Project Gemini, an important annual exchange program between Blind Veterans UK and the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) held in the UK. Hosting a visiting group of blind veterans from the US offers opportunities for our ex-Service men and women to take responsibility, to learn and share experiences as well as to make new friends.

The visiting group includes military eye health specialists who provide invaluable contacts for the charity, sharing developments and research in this area with our own specialists. Veterans in the Blind Veterans UK younger veterans group reciprocate their visit, by attending BVA’s annual conference in the USA.

This is an important personal journey for the young veterans who may be undertaking their first significant trip since losing their sight. In 2015 Project Gemini will expand to welcome new blind veterans from both Canada and South Africa and will be sponsored by Revision Military.

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Billy Drinkwater and Ken Facal 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. They speak of the day that changed their lives and the free support they have received from Blind Veterans UK.

Billy Drinkwater joined the Army in August 2002 and he went on tour in Helmand Province in 2006 and 2007 with Private Ken Facal. When on tour both Ken and Billy experienced a horrific accident in a Taliban Compound in Helmand Province in January 2011, when an IED detonated and robbed them both of their sight.

Ken and Corporal Billy Drinkwater knew each other from the start of their time serving in Iraq together and then twice in Afghanistan. Their roles were in Black Ops, where they were responsible for clearing routes of IEDs. They tell their account of the day in Helmand Province, Taliban Compound in January 2011 that changed their lives.

Billy said: “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.”

Ken had volunteered to be the point man, the first and therefore most exposed soldier in a patrol and Billy was his cover man behind him. He has Ken’s back and Ken would ask him for advice about the route.

Speaking about the night in Helmand Province, Taliban compound in January 2011 Ken said: “We were ordered out on night patrol ambush. We had no cover. It was midnight. We went to the first compound together and cleared it. We went to the next compound. The front gate was open. We thought it was weird. Could be an IED? Bill stayed with me to cover.

“Whenever a soldier spots such a device, his immediate response is always one of relief. It means you’re doing your job properly, because you’ve found out it’s there before it’s too late.”

Billy said: “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.”

Ken said: “We couldn’t hear anything and it was hard to see – We were depending on night vision. Then I saw it. A pressure pad. We definitely had an IED on our hands. I knelt up. I couldn’t use white light. There might be an ambush. Then there was a massive explosion. We were both thrown 10 meters.

“It was like being punched in the stomach. I screamed. My guts were hanging out. I was bleeding badly. My left arm was broken. I’d lost fingers. I was losing so much blood and they couldn’t even give me morphine. It’d slow my already weak heart down too much.”

Ken and Billy were flown out on the same helicopter and Ken woke up a month later but said he felt like it all happened yesterday. Ken was unable to eat when he woke up and suffered with horrific injuries to his eyes. He had two operations to try to save his sight but he lost his right eye.

Billy said: “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 realized 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 colors. At the time I didn’t have a clue who Blind Veterans UK were. I remember chatting to them though.”

When Ken woke up a month later he was visited by Blind Veterans UK. Ken said: “Blind Veterans UK visited me straightaway.”

“I guess Billy got a bit of a head-start on me! I didn’t regain consciousness until a month later. He visited all the time. He spoke so highly of the way Blind Veterans UK had helped him. He said ‘do it! Definitely get in touch’. So I did! I loved the camaraderie and right then I knew there was hope for the future.

“I went to Blind Veterans UK’s center in Brighton. It was so inspiring. Chatting with other veterans. Watching the camaraderie. Knowing that there was hope for the future.”

Ken has received free support from Blind Veterans UK, and has been given a talking watch, a magnifier, a touch typing course and cooking courses. On the support he has received Ken said: “They’ve shown me how to get back my independence. To be able to go out without always having to rely on someone else.”

Billy said: “When I was discharged I went straight to Blind Veterans UK in Ovingdean. It was so good to know 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.

“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.”

“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.”

Blind Veterans UK launched the No One Alone campaign to reach out to more people like Ken and Billy. It is estimated that there are tens of thousands of blind veterans who could be eligible for our help but are unaware of it. If you know someone who served in the Armed Forces or National Service who now suffers with sight loss (including age-related sight loss) request our free support by calling 0800 389 7979.