Soldier Bryan Phillips: I realised I had been blown up. Then gunshots hit the ground where my legs used to be...
Published 03/04/2013 | 04:20
Bryan Phillips always wanted to be a soldier. After a few years as a car mechanic he knew he wanted something better – "to give something back" – and joined the Army as a 19-year-old.
But on June 9, 2012, after eight years of service, his life changed forever.
The ex-Irish Guard remembers the day clearly – and the moment during his second tour of Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED and was blown up. He lost both legs.
But now, nearly 10 months after he escaped death, he talks about how he is learning to walk again and how he wants to help others and live his life to the full.
During his miraculous recovery since that day, the 27-year-old lance corporal has jumped out of a plane, skied and even hopes to compete in the Paralympics. He has also set up a charity to help young disabled and disadvantaged children.
The father-of-one knows how lucky he is to be alive.
"Things did get bad, my mum calls it the 'crazy Wednesday' when I died for a minute," he said.
"My mum knows more about it. I'm not sure what exactly happened – I do feel lucky." Bryan had been in Afghanistan for three months when he came under attack by the Taliban. He had already toured Iraq in 2007 after the downfall of Saddam Hussein.
"I can remember everything. We were coming up to a tree line, there was a known Taliban fighter spotted by the helicopter and we were going to search the area.
"I pushed forward and that's when it happen, I realised I had been blown up.
"I looked down and was waiting for all the dust to settle. Dust and stones were in my eyes, and my mouth was dry.
"I looked down, and when it cleared I heard gunshots and looked down towards where my legs would have been. The rounds were hitting where my legs would have been. One round hit my left thigh, which is still in my leg to this day.
"I didn't feel any pain, it must have been the shock. I just felt a burning sensation.
"I tried to start crawling back, but you have got these feelings, it is called phantom pains, you still think your legs are there.
"I thought I would be kicking with my legs to get away – but they weren't there anymore – I had to use my elbows to move."
Bryan's platoon rushed to his aid.
"They were firing at the Taliban. I just wanted to get out of there but my hand was badly injured, too," he said.
Bryan realised his arm was also hurt and both legs were gone, yet he managed to get his own medical equipment out to try and treat himself until his colleagues arrived.
"Some of them were panicking, he said. "I was trying to calm them down, I was like, 'relax, big deal, my legs are gone, we just need to get on with it'," he said.
A helicopter then arrived to rescue him.
"They must have injected me with something when I got in as the next minute I woke up in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham," he added.
Bryan battled to stay alive with family around him. At one point he technically died for one minute.
"I can't remember that at all," he said. "But I know it must have been frightening for my mum."
After two weeks he was sent to Hedley Court in Surrey, a military rehabilitation centre.
Bryan spent six weeks there and then was able to go home to Newtownabbey, but has to return regularly. "Hedley Court is just brilliant, the morale is constantly high. Everyone is just trying to beat everyone at doing stuff. Most of them are trying to aim for the Paralympics. It is something I would consider. I want to see how I get on in the handbikes, join a few clubs and see how I am within the club. Then I'll go from there, but it is definitely something I'm looking at," he said.
"I'll be getting my running blades once I master walking, which hopefully shouldn't be too long. I'm on the hydraulic legs at the minute, which is quite good going because usually some people don't get them until after a year and I just got them at Christmas time, so I'm doing quite well."
But he said he has been "extremely lucky" to have the support of his family and friends.
"My mum Carol hardly left my side when I was in hospital and my dad Isaac was also able to get over to see me. I have a five-year-old son Jack, and I need to keep up with him. I can't really drag myself down. I just get on with it. My girlfriend Natasha has also been really supportive – I'm lucky." Now he says starting his own charity is just another way of embracing life. "Through the Help For Heroes I've been skydiving, skiing. I'm also a member of the gym and driving my own car," he said. "And with Stride With Pride I'm probably busier now, at least more active, than when I had legs."
And looking back on the last eight years, Bryan said he still loved his time in the Army. "I think as a little boy I always wanted to serve my country and I did it. Not many people can say they have been to Iraq or Afghanistan.
"You train your whole Army career to do what you do on operations. To finally put all the hard training into hard life was an unreal experience," he said.
"Realistically I know that there is no job for me there, but I'm proud I joined the Army, still proud of the history I have with the Army. Now I'm looking to the future."