A blind veteran from Llandudno has received the highest honour from military charity Blind Veterans UK, the national charity for vision-impaired ex-Service men and women.
Billy Baxter, known to many in Llandudno as he serves as the Town Crier, received the honour at the Blind Veterans UK Founder’s Day Awards, held at the charity’s training and rehabilitation centre in Llandudno.
Billy, 53, was presented with the Ted Higgs Prize, considered to be the charity’s highest honour. It was given to Blind Veterans UK in memory of the late Ted Higgs, a blind veteran who lost all of his sight in 1944, whilst serving with the Royal Artillery in the Second World War. It was kindly donated by members of his family and the award is given to a war-blinded veteran in recognition of lifetime achievement with Blind Veterans UK.
He says: “This is such a huge honour. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without Blind Veterans UK and my wife Karen. It is a lovely opportunity to thank both of them.”
A former Royal Artillery staff sergeant himself, Billy lost his sight in 1997 after contracting a virus in Bosnia. Billy, who was tasked with finding evidence of war crimes, contracted the virus while he and his colleagues were exhuming a mass grave in the war-torn country.
He says: “I simply couldn’t accept losing my sight and tried to hide it from friends and family as much as possible. I couldn’t believe that anyone else would understand what I was going through.
“It took quite a while before I was convinced to start receiving support from Blind Veterans UK, or St Dunstan’s as it was known then. I went for a week at the charity’s Brighton centre to be assessed and it saved me. I’ll never forget coming home afterwards and hearing my wife say ‘we’ve got our Billy back'”.
“The most important things Blind Veterans UK did for me was showing me that life doesn’t stop when you lose your sight as well as that there would always be support there for me and my family.”
Since he started receiving support from the charity in 2000, Billy has ridden in a motorbike stunt team, appeared on Top Gear, taken a National Diploma Performing Arts course, received the Adult Learner of the Year award, carried the Olympic torch, become the only blind Town Crier in the UK, competed at the Pace Sticking World Championships, broken the world record for fastest blind motorcyclist and is the only blind motorcyclist to have completed a lap of a GP circuit.
He now works at the Blind Veterans UK’s Llandudno centre as a Rehabilitation and Training Liaison Officer helping other veterans with sight loss regain their independence and take the same difficult first steps that he did 17 years ago.
He says: “Blind Veterans UK has given so much to me which is why I want to give back to this marvellous charity. I know how difficult it is to lose your sight so can help new veterans to the charity through their journey. It’s always amazing to see the difference between how they arrive and how they leave.”
Steve Boswell, Blind Veterans UK Llandudno Centre Manager, said: “This award is so well deserved. It is hard to put into context the impact that Billy has had on our centre in Llandudno as well as the charity as a whole.
“It is no exaggeration to say that he has helped thousands of fellow blind veterans. He has an amazing ability to instantly gain trust and make people feel special. Through these abilities he is able to support our veterans as they begin their journey to regaining independence and discovering life beyond sight loss.”
Blind Veterans UK was founded in 1915 and the charity’s initial purpose was to help and support soldiers blinded in WWI. But the organisation has gone on to support more than 35,000 blind veterans and their families, spanning WWII to recent conflicts including Iraq and Afghanistan.
For more than a century, the charity has been providing vital free training, rehabilitation, equipment and emotional support to blind and vision-impaired veterans no matter when they served or how they lost their sight. Visit blindveterans.org.uk/support to learn more about the charity and how you can support its vital work today.