Belfast Telegraph

Andy Allen: I 'died' three times on the way to hospital - medics said mine were the worst injuries they'd ever had a soldier recover from

The most personal and probing interviews: Andy Allen on the heartache of losing his brother in a car crash... and why he doesn't regret his assault conviction

Q. You're married to teaching assistant Natalie (29), with whom you have two children, Carter (8) and Chloe (5). Where and when did you tie the knot?

A. We dated when we were 12 or 13 - too young to know what love was - and then we grew apart.

But we got back together about 10 months before I went to Afghanistan. It was the first time I'd seen Natalie since we were kids and it was love at first sight all over again.

Our wedding was on October 17 2009 in John White Memorial Congregational Church. We had our reception in the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast.

Q. You grew up in the Knocknagoney area before moving to the Albertbridge Road. What do you remember about growing up in east Belfast?

A. I was a normal young lad. I loved football, still do. My mum always went out of her way to ensure that we had the happiest childhood that we possibly could.

Q. Can you tell us a little more about your siblings? Do you come from a close family?

A. My 30-year-old sister Paula is a stay-at-home mum-of-five. Christopher is 27 and has just left the Army and Daniel, a product supplier, is 21.

I lost my big brother Stephen in a car accident on August 4 2001 when he was 17. He was out with a friend, they were driving home and the car hit a kerb.

We were incredibly young. I didn't fully understand it for a while; the closest person to me was gone.

It was devastating being told we'd never see our brother again. There's not a day goes past that I don't wish he was here.

Q. Your parents Linda (a kitchen assistant who's in her 50s) and Joseph (a labourer) split up when you were a toddler, although you stayed close to your father until he died in 2007 in his late 40s. Was that a particularly difficult time in your life?

A. No one wants to lose loved ones, but Dad had suffered a number of strokes and he didn't have a great quality of life. His speech had been affected, he had difficulty walking and the left side of his body was also paralysed. It was very hard watching him go through that.

Q. Did your mum meet anyone else? Is she proud of your achievements?

A. She has been with my step-dad James, a shipyard worker, for more than 20 years now. Him and I get on well. Obviously it was a difficult balancing act initially, but he has supported us as best he can.

Mum is proud of us all. She has been very supportive. She didn't want me to go into politics because she knows how vicious it can be. But she's also helped me knock doors and deliver leaflets -she's been ever-present, like the rest of my family.

Q. You attended Knocknagoney PS and Avoniel PS, then Orangefield Secondary before leaving school in 2005 to work at a newsagent. What was that like? And what made you join the Army in March 2006 (serving with the 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment)?

A. It was great experience working with the general public, and even now when I knock doors in east Belfast people remember me from the shop!

I flirted with being a chef or and electrician, but then I saw a television advert - British Army, Be the Best. I certainly wanted to be the best, so I signed up and there was no looking back.

Q. You lost both of your legs and you were left partially blind following an explosion in Afghanistan on July 14, 2008. You were only 19 and had been in the country for just four months. What do you remember about that day?

A. I remember three of my mates putting me into the back of a vehicle after (the explosion).

I recall sitting up, looking at my legs, shaking my head and lying back down because I'd seen the extent of the injuries.

Apparently I muttered some rather unpleasant words before lying back down. At that stage I could still see.

Along with losing my big brother, it was probably the worst day of my life.

One minute I was in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban and then suddenly I'm in hospital, having lost my legs and not being able to see anything.

It took two operations to restore some of the vision. They did a cataract removal in 2008 on the day Carter was born. I was just about to go under the knife while Natalie was in labour.

Up until then I was totally blind. It was so scary not knowing my surroundings or what I was being wheeled in to.

Q. You were sedated for eight weeks after the blast while the medics fought to keep you alive. How did you feel when you realised that you had such a close shave with death?

A. I always knew that I'd come close to dying, but I didn't realise just how close until months later. Apparently I'd 'died' three times in the helicopter on the journey from Musa Qala so, if anything, I've come to realise how precious life is.

Having realised how near to death I was, I live life to the fullest and I have a stronger appreciation of it. Many aren't given that second chance.

I'd be lying if I said death didn't frighten me. I want to be around to see my children growing up and starting their own families. I want to be there to encourage and support them like my family have done for me.

Q. What happened to you - physically and mentally - must have put a real strain on your relationship with Natalie. How did you two manage to stay strong and overcome your difficulties?

A. My face had been badly damaged, my legs had gone and they didn't know if my eyesight could be saved, but Natalie told me she loved me for who I am.

Afterwards we had the serious conversations that we needed to have, but we were the same people who loved each other and that wasn't going to change.

Natalie was five months' pregnant with Carter when it happened and that was inspiration for me to get better.

I wanted to recover to do as many normal things as possible with my son, even though my life had been turned upside down. At times it frustrates me that I can't kick a football around with Carter, but he appreciates that's not a possibility.

Q. When you were hit by that improvised explosive device back in 2008, one of your comrades was wearing a camera attached to his body armour, and the events of that day were caught on film. The footage was later used in Wounded, the Bafta-winning documentary. How did you feel about seeing that?

A. I didn't really grasp that it was me. The first time I saw it was with all my family. It's difficult watching it, but such is the reality of life.

What happened, happened. But I'm able to look back at all I have achieved since that day when the doctors were trying to reassure my family that I'd pull through, even though they weren't sure themselves.

It wasn't until I was out of the woods that they admitted my injuries were the worst they'd ever seen.

Q. You set up the Andy Allen Veterans Support charity in early 2010 to meet the needs of veterans and their families living in Northern Ireland. Did that help you work through things mentally?

A. That, and trying to remain as active as I possibly could within the military. I actually wanted to stay in the Army, but I was medically discharged on July 5 2012. It was decreed that I could no longer do the role I'd signed up for. My regiment bent over backwards to support me and were going to give me a desk job, but the higher echelons of the military decided I was no longer a valuable asset.

It was a real kick in the teeth, but when I look back I see that their loss was my gain because I've done and achieved more since leaving.

Q. With the benefit of hindsight, would you say the war in Afghanistan was worth it?

A. It's not for me to decide whether the war was worth it. That was our foreign policy and that was for the leaders to decide. From an ordinary soldier's point of view I firmly believe myself and my colleagues gave the Afghan people the building blocks for a better future.

Q. Do you believe in God? Do you have a strong faith?

A. I believe in God. I'm not an overly religious person, but I respect the views and beliefs of others.

Q. You have a conviction for assault occasioning actual bodily harm against another former solider. Is that something that you're ashamed of?

A No. All that I was attempting to do was defend myself. I was faced with a scenario whereby an individual tried to push me out of my chair after a heated discussion. How can you regret something that you didn't actively set out to do?

Q. You are Stormont's only wheelchair-using MLA. What challenges do you face, both there and in everyday life?

A. When I first entered the Assembly there were problems. I couldn't get up into the voting lobby because the ramps were far too steep.

Also, the big heavy doors were difficult to get through, but they've now been automated.

In daily life I've fallen off kerbs and out of my chair many times because of my eyesight and I require someone to be with me most times, unless it's an area I'm really familiar with. For instance, I can navigate from my house to my mother-in-law's.

But not being able to drive is awful because I drove a lot before I was injured.

Q. What's the most important piece of advice that you've ever been given?

A. You must put yourself and your family first.

Q. And how do you spend your free time. How do you relax?

A. I spend time with my family, going out for meals, to the cinema and taking the kids to soft play areas.

Q. And who would you say is your best Catholic friend?

A. I became friends with many Catholics in the Army, so it would be unfair to single one person out. I've many friends across the religious spectrum. I don't allow religion to come into it; I hold all my friends dearly.

Q. Tell us about the best day of your life so far.

A. Getting married, alongside the births of my children. I would have to throw in meeting the Man United squad when I was injured -Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo, Giggs... I have met them all and I've a signed shirt from the whole team.

Q. What's your favourite place in the whole world?

A. I like Cyprus, but I loved going to Blackpool as a child.

Q. What's your favourite place in Northern Ireland?

A. I love going to Windsor Park with my son and watching Northern Ireland play. He loves it. I actually met the team just before my wedding. They saw the documentary and brought me across to a game in Prague.

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