‘I am no hero, but I served alongside heroes.” It is an age-old military saying, one articulated and echoed by each new generation of soldiers, but it becomes no less true through repetition.
As a captain in the Royal Irish Regiment I completed two tours of Afghanistan, one in 2006, the other in 2008. On each occasion I witnessed people I admired and respected suffer the most hideous of fates. Not killed by the enemy — in a way perhaps that would have been the kind way out — but maimed; left with what are euphemistically called “life-changing injuries”. If bravery is displayed by those who make the so-called ultimate sacrifice for their country, then it is no less evident in those who survive, albeit terribly scarred or mentally traumatised.
Just as collateral damage does nothing to convey the full horror of innocents caught up in the fighting in Afghanistan, nor does the bland headline “two killed and four wounded” give any real sense of the hideous injuries British troops are receiving in Helmand daily, and now routinely surviving.
And that is the difference. In conflicts gone by soldiers were exposed to the full brutality that man could unleash upon man and by the standards of today their ability to survive the onslaught was limited. Which is why many, many lost their lives. Yet despite the 250 Service personnel who have died in Afghanistan, the toll could have been greater still had it not been for the twin advancements of army kit and modern medicine.
Take my Royal Irish colleague, Ranger Andy Allen. At just 19, in July 2008, he was blown up by a Taleban IED (improvised explosive device). He lost both legs and most of his eyesight. Yet his body armour helped to shield his vital organs from the full impact of the blast and the decisive intervention of first his battlefield colleagues, and then the Quick Reaction Force medical team from Camp Bastion meant his name was not among the list of the fallen Gordon Brown reads out at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Yet for Andy, the long-term battle was only just beginning. There have been extended stays at Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham, and also Hedley Court rehabilitation centre, in Surrey.
As if the physical toll were not bad enough, Andy has also had to come to terms with the mental anguish of a future far from the one he envisaged when he enlisted. Coping was made more difficult still because of separation from his family. At Hedley Court he was surrounded by well-meaning experts, but the teenager still felt desperately isolated. He was far from his blood relatives and far from his other family, his comrades in 1 R IRISH. Eventually it was agreed he should return to Northern Ireland and continue his treatment there.
Whatever else the MoD might be considering, a more localised approach to treatment is required: something that ensures troops have their own support network close at hand.
While the hurdles he faces have not diminished in size, at least Andy now has a support network on hand; the local community, his regimental colleagues and the St Dunstan’s Charity. It was St Dunstan’s who spent £25,000 adapting his home to suit his injuries, not the MoD. And the help of St Dunstan’s and others will continue to be sorely needed. For Andy’s youth has proved a double-edged sword. Being young and fit gives his body the best chance of healing, yet it also presents problems. Because Andy is still so early in his life, his bones have yet to stop growing, preventing him from being fitted with prosthetic limbs. The independence and mobility he craves remain beyond him.
And if the challenges weren’t already great, there are more worries ahead. What for example, will he do with the rest of his life? This is not just a problem for Andy, it is also a big issue for the Armed Forces.
Perhaps as many as a couple of thousand men and women are in Andy’s predicament. The reality is the Army cannot “carry” its wounded indefinitely. There must come a time when they are invalided out of the Service. Decreasing budgets and shrinking roll numbers mean there is neither the money nor the space for the most severely injured to be absorbed back into the system.
Yet as they move from one life to another it is vital we know what becomes of them; that we track their progress. We know more about the meat that ends up on our plate — where the cow that became the beef was born, its medical history, what it ate, where it lived, where it died — than we do about our veterans.
Nor do fiscal and operational imperatives remove the moral responsibilities this nation has to its men and women made casualties by war. Today Andy Allen continues to do his bit for the British military, helping out with recruitment and raising funds for Help for Heroes and other good causes.
Should the MoD be responsible for finding people like Andy a job in civilian life? No. Should it give them the life skills to prepare them for what comes next and follow their progress? Absolutely. After all if we can, through organisations such as the Probation Service, manage the release and reintegration of offenders into society, surely we can do it for our wounded heroes? And this must be a continuing commitment. Physical injuries heal, mental ones can last a lifetime.
Of course there will be financial cost. But not as great as leaving these men and women to their fate and then having to pick up the pieces when some inevitably fall.
For all their faults, soldiers know how to fight, and understand better than most the concepts of loyalty, service and sacrifice. The wounded will battle for all they are worth to contribute to society. It would be remiss of the rest of us not to help them to come out victorious.
If Andy’s story sounds familiar to you, it is possibly because his struggle to recover his health was featured last year in a BBC documentary. For the millions of viewers the anguish of being exposed to the reality of Britain’s war in Afghanistan ended when the programme finished. For Andy it only goes on.
Captain Doug Beattie, winner of the Military Cross in 2006 and the author of Task Force Helmand.