An award-winning Army Cadet from Ilkeston has had his lifelong dream of joining the full-time armed forces cruelly dashed after being diagnosed with a condition that will attack his eyesight and cannot be cured.
Josh Byard, 18, was presented with the coveted Gilbert Statuette as the Most Improved Junior Soldier when he passed out from the Army Foundation College in Harrogate this week.
But it was a bitter-sweet moment as he stepped forward and received the honour. For he knew that unlike his fellow graduates, he wouldn’t be taking up his dream career as a soldier because he has been diagnosed with Stargardt Disease after a routine eye test at Ilkeston Specsavers.
Stargardt is a genetic, degenerative condition. Symptoms vary but include wavy vision, blind spots, impaired colour vision and difficulty adapting to light.
He said: “When I found out I couldn’t be in the Army I was gutted. I still don’t know what to think about it all really.
“It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do since when I was a little boy, I was always running around playing soldiers.”
Joining the forces and following in the footsteps of his uncle and great grandad was Josh’s aim, so when he turned 17 he signed up for the Army and was sent to the Foundation College to complete his first year’s training.
He excelled and was especially good at the physical side of things. Everything was going as he had hoped and he was on track to complete his training with flying colours until he returned home on leave and went for the check-up.
His mum, Claire Hawkins explained: “The first sign anything was wrong was when he went for the eye test.
“The optician noticed something and said Josh would need to see a specialist, it was all arranged and he was referred to the hospital in Harrogate because of college and so he had a couple of appointments up there.
“There was test after test but eventually they said what it was.”
Josh, who was set to join The Rifles, said: “It was just before Christmas that I found I had Stargardt Disease.
“I still don’t know a lot about what will happen now, I just know that I can’t be in the Army.
“There’s certain treatments that I can have and they want me to see an expert in Oxford so that’s all being sorted out.
“I’m not really sure about my future until then.”
But the devastating news that Josh can’t pursue his dream career has impacted on the whole family.
Claire added: “We’re all so proud of him, he sailed through his training, the award proves that, but then to find out he can’t carry on, I was so gutted for him.
“He worked really hard and achieved what he always wanted to so to find out he can’t be a soldier is really upsetting.
“I know what it means to him, I just feel helpless because there’s nothing any of us can do.
“Glasses won’t fix it and can’t help either, it’s just horrible.”
Josh will now move back to the family home on Nelson Street while treatment options are explored.
Claire said: “Weve just got to wait and see what happens next now but we’d be proud of him whatever he decided to do.”