A team of three blind veterans have made history as they have become the first civilian team to compete at the Pace Sticking World Championships at Sandhurst today (16/06).
Military charity Blind Veterans UK entered a team that, as well as being the first non-serving team to take part in the competition’s history, also has three of its members who are registered blind.
The blind veterans that make up the team are Kevin Alderton, Billy Baxter and Steve Birkin. They were led by the sighted Drum Major Tony Taylor and took on pace sticking teams from across the Armed Forces and around the world.
The origin of the pace stick, which looks like a large pair of compasses, is claimed by the Royal Regiment of Artillery, who used a “gunner’s stick” to measure the distance between their guns in the field. But it was adapted and used by the Infantry as an aid to drill and can be opened up to measure a perfect pace when marching.
The art of pace sticking competitively involves keeping perfect time, coordination and dressing to keep in a straight line. Skills that are hard enough to master for serving soldiers but made particularly challenging if you are blind. The stick is spun on the ground whilst marching and the team have had to master several skills including changing the hand holding the stick whilst still keeping perfect pace.
When talking about how the idea for the team emerged Kevin Alderton says:
“It came about through a conversation with a fellow blind veteran. We were just saying about some of the things we missed since we left, and one of the things was actually drill. Eight months later, here we are!”
Billy Baxter, who has no sight at all, marched in the middle of the three veterans and has talked about the importance of being able to return to drill training after losing his sight. He says:
“Losing your sight hits you hard. For a long time you don’t think you’ll be able to do anything again which almost makes you want to give up. Luckily, Blind Veterans UK was here for all of us and they help you realise that there is so much more you that you can do than not.
“It has been brilliant for all of us to go back to our old training as well as learning new skills and we will are so proud to represent the charity that has changed all our lives.”
The team were able to practice for the event by marching in the Patron’s Lunch parade this weekend. They led the delegation of Armed Forces charities and organisations that hold The Queen’s patronage that paraded on the Mall to celebrate Her Majesty’s 90th birthday.
Team member and blind veteran Steve Birkin says:
“It was a huge honour to have been asked to represent the charity at the Patron’s Lunch parade and we all got such a buzz from the cheers and applause from the crowd.”
Drum Major Tony Taylor has faced new challenges in training blind veterans and had to adapt his methods. He says:
“I’ve had to rethink the way I’m teaching them, and try to explain and move their hands into the correct position.
“They have all worked extremely hard and we wouldn’t be taking part if we thought we were there to make up the numbers.”
The team have had regular training sessions and were able to compete at the world championships after competing in a qualifying event held at Wellington Barracks in May.
Chief Executive of Blind Veterans UK, Major General (Rtd) Nick Caplin CB, said: “Our pace sticking team is a perfect example of what Blind Veterans UK is all about and we are hugely proud of them.
“We believe in providing people with the skills and support to regain their independence and achieve a victory over blindness. Like so many of our veterans, these three have demonstrated that there is 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 the First World War. But the organisation has gone on to support more than 35,000 blind veterans and their families, spanning the Second World War 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.