Andy, a brave young soldier, can’t walk any more ... but he wants you to walk for him this weekend
With thousands set to throng Stormont estate in Belfast on Sunday for a fun day and sponsored walk for Help for Heroes, Marie Foy talks to the wounded Army personnel who benefit from the charity
Balloons, face-painting, music for teens, and fun and laughter will fill the grounds of Stormont this weekend. But there's a very poignant reason for all this lighthearted festivity.
The fundraising walk and family fun day is being organised by Help For Heroes (H4H), a charity which helps wounded members of the Armed Forces across the UK.
Northern Ireland co-ordinator for the charity, Neal Somerville, says: “This is the first time we've held this event and hope to make it an annual one. We expect around 5,000 people to come along to take part in a one, two or three-mile walk or simply to have some family fun.
“The Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards are sending more troops out to Afghanistan in the next few months so there is a very real reason to support our work.”
Since it was set up in 2007, the charity has raised a mammoth £63m. The money is spent in many ways: for example, £8m was donated to Headley Court, the Army- run rehabilitation centre in Surrey, for a new swimming pool complex. And grants are made to groups such as The Prince’s Trust, Combat Stress and Personnel Recovery Centres.
Belfast volunteer Louise Roberts (20), a student, says: “I know a lot of people who have gone to Afghanistan and I wanted to do something for them. I meet families with relatives out there and they get quite emotional about it. Hearing the personal stories makes our efforts all very worthwhile.”
The Belfast soldier blown up on patrol
Ranger Andy Allen (21), from Belfast, lost his legs and was partially blinded in a bomb blast in the notorious Helmand Province of Afghanistan in 2008. He featured in BBC1 documentary Wounded, which won a Bafta. Andy is married to Natalie (22), a school assistant, and they have a son Carter, who's two in November. He says:
I joined the Ist Battalion Royal Irish Regiment when I was 17. I was always quite fit and I wanted to travel the world and do different things. There wasn't much for me workwise at home. Everything the recruiting officer said made me think ‘I want to do this'.
When I was 19, in March '08, the battalion was deployed to Afghanistan. You know you're going to experience something you've never experienced before. On July 14 we were out in a rural area early one morning on a routine foot patrol.
Everything was going as normal, no sign of anything, and we stopped for a break. I've no recollection of it, but I've been told as soon as we started up a large explosion went off. Once the dust settled the blokes realised I had been hit and it was a scramble to get me first aid, a tourniquet and to stabilise me. My right leg had been taken off and my left leg was in a bad way, but was still there. My face and eyes had been burned. The lads got the morphine in right and quick. An improvised explosive device had been dug into the ground near me. As the lads were treating me we came under small arms fire. They were trying to contain that and get me out.
The boys had two or three miles to run with me on a stretcher.
I was flown on a Chinook helicopter to the main hospital at Camp Bastion.
I lost my other leg 10 days later. It was too badly infected and damaged to save.
Two days later I was in intensive care in Selly Oaks Hospital in Birmingham. I was there from July 16 to October 7. I was sedated in intensive care for seven weeks because I was in such a bad state.
When I was well enough I went to a burns ward. From there I started to get back into a routine and build up my strength. I was still in quite a bad way but not at death's door.
Then I was sent to Headley Court in Surrey, a rehabilitation unit. Help the Heroes has just built a swimming pool there to help the guys. I was fitted with ‘stubbies' — I call them elephant's feet, prosthetic limbs.
Originally I had no eyesight. They did an operation to remove a cataract and that gave me 30% back in my right eye.
Initially it was hard coming to terms with my injuries.
The way I see it, I am one of the lucky ones, I'm not six feet under. I have been given a second chance to live my life.
The least I can do is to have a fulfilling one.
I have a lovely wife and son and a family that cares for me.
It was hard for Natalie; she was pregnant with Carter at the time. She was flown over a few hours after I arrived in Birmingham along with my mum, Linda Sheridan and stepfather, Jim Lattimer.
It was nail-biting for them for seven weeks. When I was brought out of sedation there was a glimmer of light as I started to pick up a bit.
I have learned to accept what has happened. You can't be bitter about these things — if you were you couldn't get on with your life. I have a close-knit family who are there for me. When I wake up in the morning and see my family it is all worthwhile.
Carter was born when I was in hospital for my eye operation on Nov 19, 2008. He gave me a huge reason to get better.
I am just thankful I am here and able to tell him what happened myself.
We've had great support. St Dunstan's works with blind ex-service people and built a brilliant wet room extension for me. They are supported by Help for Heroes. I would urge everyone to give even just 50p towards their work.
Now I'm doing computer courses and I'd like to stay on in the Army, perhaps to help other injured soldiers; to tell them there's light at the end of the tunnel.
Corporal whose mate saved him from dying
Colin Thompson (30), who lives near Portavogie, is a corporal in the 2nd Battalion Rifles. During a tour in Afghanistan he had his main neck artery severed, suffered a brain injury and was wounded in the arm and hand after a bomb exploded. He is married to Andrea (31), a teacher. He says:
I joined the Army when I was 21, served in Northern Ireland for five years and was in Iraq in 2005. In March last year I was deployed to Helmand and I was blown up in June.
We were in the town of Sangin on routine foot patrol: I was the section commander and had the radio. When the bombers saw the radio antennae they pressed the button — the IED (improvised explosive device) was at the side of the wall which is why our metal detectors didn't pick it up.
There was a loud bang and a ringing noise and I was knocked down. When I came to I was a bit dizzy with ringing in my ears. There was dust everywhere and I couldn't see. I remember waking up and I couldn't breathe. My mate was trying to put me into the recovery position and I had to fight to sit up. Then I was able to talk and tell him I couldn't breathe. I thought it was because of the dust — I didn't realise I had a punctured lung and the main artery in my throat was severed. I saw a bit of bone sticking out of my thumb and I thought that was about it. I lost five pints of blood out on the ground. My mate stemmed the blood flow and saved my life.
A helicopter was there quickly and took me to the hospital at Camp Bastion. I had passed out by then.
You don't get time to get scared. You have 10 men to look after. I haven't really thought about it. I've put it to the back of my mind. I was injured and that is it.
I woke up in Selly Oaks Hospital in Birmingham more than a week later, then I had a few operations. In Bastion they had taken a vein from my groin and stuck it in my throat, but I also had shrapnel in my elbow and arm, and my larynx was paralysed. I have a brain injury as well which affects my memory, concentration and co-ordination.
The first thing I remember when I woke up was my mum and my wife, who had been worried sick. I was in intensive care for two-and-a-half weeks and then went to the burns and plastics unit, and from there I was moved to Headley Court, the Army run rehabilitation centre in Surrey, until November. The Army flew my whole family over and put them up in accommodation. I had a long round of one-to-one counselling, rehabilitation and physiotheraphy — it was very good. The work that charities like Help for Heroes do is excellent and I would ask everyone to support them.
They arranged for me to go on a skiing trip in France which helped with my co-ordination (I fell a lot) and to get my head showered. And they gave £8m to build a new swimming pool at Headley Court.
I had an operation on my arm this week and have to go back to Headley Court in September for more rehabilitation.
I am non-deployable now. I joined the Army to fight but if I can't do that, there's no point in staying in. Now I would like to do my nursing degree and perhaps work in intensive care.
The victim’s mother who helps charity
Mary Thompson (52), a school secretary from Portavogie, is Colin's mother. After Colin was injured she became a volunteer with Help for Heroes. She is often overcome with emotion at the terrible memories. She says:
Colin's older brother joined the Army when he was 17, but I told Colin to get a trade first, so he did that and worked as a butcher. He came in one day and said ‘I'm going to join the Army'. From the minute he went he lived and breathed it. He had found his niche.
If there was any danger where they were, they were both very good at letting us know they were OK.
It was a Wednesday morning. My husband Hubert came in from night shift and told me that someone from 2 Rifles had been killed. He felt uneasy about it, but Teletext said the relatives had been informed. For a split second you think thank God it isn't us, then you feel guilty — it's someone's son or father.
I went to work and at lunchtime I went into the office. The headmaster put his arm around me and said there was someone from the MOD to see me. You think the worst. I said I didn't want to hear this, and the head said I had to. This Army man said Colin had been involved in an IED incident and had been very seriously injured. He couldn't tell us what his injuries were but kept saying his last communication was that Colin was alive.
I was devastated, absolutely devastated. I didn't care what state he was in as long as he was alive. That was all I wanted to know.
By that night the Army had arranged for us to be on a flight to Birmingham. That was the longest night. I said to his dad we could cope as a family with looking after him — no matter what care he needed we would provide it.
When we walked in he'd had a tracheotomy, his head and neck were swollen, there were drains coming out each side of his chest, and tubes and wires everywhere. He was just lying there. You feel so helpless: as a mother you feel you should be able to help your child but you can't. He looked so young. It was awful. I can't describe how we felt, but the nurses were absolutely fantastic.
Colin was in a drug-induced sleep and after about a week they decided to wake him. Doctors warned us he might be violent as the last thing he remembered was getting hurt, but he wasn't. He couldn't speak but he squeezed his dad's hand and mouthed ‘mum'. That was a good day.
It's been a long, slow haul but he is doing well. His short-term memory is bad and he's very, very tired all the time, but on the whole he is doing very well. He doesn't talk about Afghanistan to us, but he does seem to cope, though I'm sure none of those lads come home unscathed. I hope they all get all the counselling and help they need.
I got involved with Help the Heroes because we are so grateful for the help Colin has received and wanted to give something back. The charity has done an awful lot for Headley Court.
The day Colin was injured everything fell into place. The helicopter which took him to hospital was already in the air and only took seven minutes to get to him, the right medics were onboard, a soldier with him carried him to the helicopter. Colin carries a keyring saying Miracles Happen —that day we had our miracle.
Belfast Telegraph are media partners for Help the Heroes sponsored walk and family fun day which will be held at Stormont Estate, Belfast, on Sunday from noon. For tickets log onto www.dx2music.com. To make a donation go to www.helpforheroes.org.uk
How stars help to raise cash for the Armed Forces
- Robbie Williams, Alexandra Burke and The Saturdays are performing a concert in Twickenham on September 12, in aid of Help For Heroes. The concert will be broadcast on BBC1.
- This week former Prime Minster Tony Blair vowed to donate his £4.6m book advance as well as all of the royalties from his upcoming memoirs to build a rehabilitation centre for wounded soldiers.
- Nell McAndrew ran the London marathon in 2009 for SOS (Support our Soldiers). The model and TV presenter is also actively involved with SSAFA Forces Help.
- TV chef Tristan Welch, from Saturday Kitchen, helped to organise a celebrity polo match to raise money for injured soldiers in July this year. Competitors included boxer Steve Collins and ex-Miss United Kingdom, Amy Guy.
- In September 2009, Michael Parkinson hosted An Evening With Sir Michael Parkinson to raise funds for the charity in Wolverhampton.
- At the end of 2007, self-styled Top Gear megamouth Jeremy Clarkson became a patron of Help For Heroes.
- Actor Michael Caine has been a keen supporter of the charity, as well as the British Forces Foundation.
- As well as creating his own charity, The Victoria and David Beckham Foundation, David Beckham is a keen supporter of Help For Heroes.
- The 2008 X Factor contestants released former Mariah Carey song Hero to fundraise for The Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal.