Ken and Billy's story

Billy and Ken have received free support from Blind Veterans UK.
Billy and Ken have received free support from Blind Veterans UK.

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 this Remembrance Day.

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. Ken Facal was 17 and a half and at college when he decided to join the Forces. He was too young to join the police but decided to join the Army after seeing a big advertising campaign. 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: "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."


Ken said: "Afghanistan was a whole different ball game to Iraq. The first tour was harder. It was full on. You train for it, but nothing prepares you for the reality. When someone shouts 'Man down'! That's something else."


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 metres.


"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 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 Ken woke up a month later he was visited by Blind Veterans UK. Ken said: "Blind Veterans UK visited me straightaway. I remember Simon Brown and a lady coming to chat. I didn't really think about the significance at the time though. It's only after looking back.


"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. To keep my spirits up. 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.


"Bill and I talked about it a lot. You know, Blind Veterans UK and how they might help us. I went to Blind Veterans UK's centre in Brighton. It was so inspiring. Chatting with the 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 '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."


Ken and Billy Skiing


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 timeā€¦ 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."


We launched the No One Alone campaign to reach out to more people like Ken and Billy. It is estimated that there are 68,000 plus 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.

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