On 31 January 2010 the life he knew came to an end, when, in Nadi Ali, he was wounded in an IED explosion.
Vikings were given courage in battle by their belief in a glorious afterlife. They fought to their death in the conviction they might reach Valhalla, and as they stood at the bottom of the steps and looked up at mighty Odin, the god of poetry and battle, that he would grant them entry. This belief shaped the way the Vikings lived their lives, faced their death and honoured their fallen.To honour the fallen, his fellow Vikings, his comrades who were killed in Afghanistan, Billy Drinkwater, a blind veteran who served as a Corporal in 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, bears a permanent tribute to the men who breathed their last on the blood soaked ground of Afghanistan. Respected by those he served with, Billy was a career soldier, who during ten years of Service was recognised for his skill and leadership. On 31 January 2010 the life he knew came to an end when he was wounded in an IED explosion in the post 9/11 war. To move on from that day of death he had to leave his past behind, forget the person he was, and draw on every ounce of his strength to look inside himself to find who he could become. With support from his family and friends, and seven years after he heard that first message of hope from Martin Shail at our Brighton centre, Billy continues his journey to build a new life.
As a reminder to look to the future, and as a tribute to his friends who didn’t make it, he has a back tattoo that he speaks of.
Asked how his story began, Billy told our Review magazine. Listen to Billy’s interview or read the transcript below.
“I joined Blind Veterans UK in March 2010 shortly after I was injured in Afghanistan. I joined the Army because of 9/11 - I watched it happen when I was only 15, and thought of all the innocent people who were killed in that attack, and how their loved ones would never see them again.
"At that time I didn’t have a clue about the Army, all I knew was that my grandad had served in it. That day, 9/11, just flicked a switch in me and a week later I went to the Army careers office and joined up."
“Like I said, I didn’t have a clue about the different sections of the Army, and the Regiment I joined was the one that the guy who opened the door in the careers office belonged to. It just turned out that he was in the infantry in the Royal Anglian Regiment, and that’s how my story started.
“I enjoyed a ten year career where I got to the rank of Corporal. I was a badge sniper. I was thriving. I loved it. I did a tour of Iraq. Two tours of Afghanistan, and each tour I did I progressed to the next rank. I was a Private in Iraq, then I went to a Lance Corporal on the first tour of Afghanistan, and then, on the near fatal tour, my last tour, I was a Corporal and a Section Commander. I loved the job and was more gutted about losing the job than the injury.
"Ultimately, although you don’t die, you still lose your life because you lose your job and everything you’ve done for the last ten years."
“All that effort, all that promotion, all that hard graft, all that blood, sweat and tears. You lose a lot of yourself and you’re cut off from everyone, and obviously on top of everything you have a life-changing injury to deal with. It’s a lot to take in and to me the injury is the least of it.”
Speaking of how he found strength Billy continued:
“At the time I was injured family support was very, very important and with my friends their support was everything. The first and best hope I was given was when I walked into the Brighton centre and met Martin Shail. It was that first day when you meet people who have lived their life with total blindness for the last 20 years or more and you hear that message of hope.
"That first time at the Brighton centre was life changing. I walked in with my head down and without any motivation and interest in life, as I’d just lost everything that was important, everything I cared about, but that first night changed everything."
“It changed my perception about the future and showed endless possibilities. It was all thanks to Martin Shail, as he was outstanding. It was fantastic to see him operate and how he lived his daily life. Martin gave me hope that there was still life and I had a chance. To go there and see the staff in action and the outstanding work they do really put me on the path to rebuild my life. It was still hard to accept that I would no longer be the person I was before, but I knew that I could start work to get my life back.”
Returning to that life changing day in Afghanistan:
“It was the 31 January 2010 and we were in Nadi Ali, an area in South East Helmand Province. It was dark as we were moving into position in the early hours of the morning to stay overnight. I was with my front man, Ken Facal, who was also injured and is now also a blind veteran. Ken and I were really close friends before we were injured and even more so since.
"Basically, on that day we found a device, we confirmed it, marked it, and it went off in our faces, which resulted in us sustaining life threatening injuries at the time, and then life changing ones.
"I lost my right eye and at the time I was blinded in my left eye. I was blind for six weeks. I lost hearing, sense of smell, had facial scarring and broke a bone in my hand. But what I lost after that was a lot more than I lost in Afghan in the explosion."
“I knew then and there on the spot that I’d lost my job. I knew it and I was raging. I got back up on my feet, I couldn’t see, and I just knew that I’d lost my job and my life. I remember how in that rage I threw my weapon down, took my body armour off and threw it on the ground, took my day sack off and thought — please don’t get shot. In intensive care I had a bit of hope when I was told that I had a fighting chance of keeping my job, but that turned out to be a hallucination because of the meds. I’d lost my shooting eye and the fact was that I was no longer viable for deployment.”
To keep him moving forward, and as a tribute to his friends, Billy has a permanent reminder on his back.
“As my Regiment is known as the Vikings I wanted to get a tattoo that represented what we’d done and to show Valhalla where Vikings go when they are killed on the battlefield. The first thing was to get the Valhalla text and then I waited for eight years until I found the right artist and the right artwork. I went to a local tattooist and told him the legend, told him what I was about and what I wanted to achieve, and he came up with this design. I wanted to show a Viking asking to enter Valhalla, and as soon as I saw his design knew that it was the right design and I wanted it done immediately. He did it in four back to back sessions that each lasted for six hours.
"People ask about the pain, but for what it means it was no pain, as it’s to honour my friends who didn’t come back."
“At the bottom of the tattoo is a Viking who has been killed in battle and he is shown standing at the bottom of the stairs to Valhalla and at the top of the stairs is Odin on his throne, as only Odin can grant him entry to Valhalla. It’s a tribute to every man that we lost when we were away and this is the very least I could do for them. As it’s on my back I can never fully see it and that reminds me not to look back, but to look to the future. I know it’s there and if I try to look at it all the time then I can’t see what’s coming towards me. I use that as a metaphor as I know that it’s my past and I can’t live in it. I know that my friends are looking down on me, willing me to where I want to go, and that when I make mistakes they help. I must live the best life I can, for myself and for those who are important to me, and for those who aren’t here anymore, and to be grateful for everything I have.”
Billy is now at the beginning of what could be his next career:
“Since January this year I’ve been talking in schools and doing workshops where I speak about beating adversity through resilience, as that’s something that I know about, and it’s been very enlightening speaking to children and seeing their reactions. The natural progression is that with another veteran I’ve been invited by Camp International to Borneo with a group of school children aged from 16 to 18 to do humanitarian and wildlife conservation work in the jungle.
“I was really looking forward to it as it’s all totally new. It’s been a challenge but so rewarding at the same time. We didn’t know what to expect as this is a pilot project but so far it’s been great. I’ll tell you more about it when I’m back!
“As Camp International is worldwide it would be great to keep working with them as a mentor and go around the world from camp to camp, as to help people can only be good. As there will also be downtime in Borneo it will be a good place to clear my head and clarify what I want to do, and importantly, what I don’t want to do. In my talks in schools I always encourage the children to take time out to travel and see the world and make it theirs, as you only get one life and there’s a lot to do. Now that I’m doing this work I understand how much satisfaction Martin Shail must have got from his work at the Brighton centre.”
In closing Billy gave his message to anyone who was nervous about taking making that initial call to the charity or that initial visit to the Brighton or Llandudno centres or to embrace the training in their community.
"Whoever you are and whatever age you are, wherever you’ve come from, and whatever happened to you, Blind Veterans UK is a family and the charity is here to support you. It’s here to give hope and training, for you and for your family, as they need to learn how to adapt to your new needs too."
“There’s so much this charity can do for you, but obviously you must help yourself as well and embrace the training and opportunities. There’s nothing to lose and all you have to do is to try your best. Talking to people who are in the same boat as you and who understand really helps and it helps for your family to have other families to talk to.
“When Blind Veterans UK first contacted me I was in the ward in hospital as I’d just come out of intensive care. I won’t lie, the first time they came to see me in hospital I told them to go away, as I was still in denial and didn’t think I needed them. I thought that my sight would get better. It wasn’t until two weeks later when I started to walk into walls and couldn’t really cope that I realised I needed help. I phoned the charity and Simon Brown, a veteran who was blinded in Iraq came back to see me. I was still pessimistic and thought they wouldn’t be able to do anything."
"I decided to go straight from six weeks in hospital to the Brighton centre without even going home. And that’s when the next chapter of my life started."