At 21, paratrooper Alistair Hodgson, lost both legs in an IRA booby trap bomb. Today, 17 years later, he is one of the world’s best skydivers
Rachel Quigley meets former soldier whose life was turned upside down in a terrorist ambush, but who has fought back with incredible courage to conquer the skies
Alistair Hodgson’s life was changed for ever when, as a 21-year-old soldier in the elite Parachute Regiment stationed in Northern Ireland, he was blown up by an IRA booby trap and lost both of his legs.
That horrific incident 17 years ago started an incredible journey which has led him to become one of the world’s best skydivers and British National Freestyle Skydiving Champion. He will compete against able-bodied men and women in August for the world title and hopes that someday he can compete in the Olympics.
He says: “I always wanted to join the Army, for as long as I can remember. It was a sense of duty for me I suppose. My whole family had been in the army — my father, grandfather, great grandfather — there were always medals hanging up on our wall and I dreamed of the day my medals would join them. To know that that will never happen is the worst thing. That was taken away from me, my dreams, my career prospects, the life that I dreamed of living as a Paratrooper in the Army. In the back of your mind you always think that one day everything will be OK, but it won’t and that is a reality you have to try and accept every day.
I was 19 when I joined the Army and became a member of the elite Parachute Regiment. I hadn’t joined that long when I got stationed in Northern Ireland, it was my first posting and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious. There was a lot of activity going on at the time but to me it was just a duty I had to carry out as part of a job that I pledged to do. I had no qualms about going and if, in that short time I saved the lives of 10, 50 or 100 people, then it was all worthwhile.
We were eight weeks in to the three-month tour and we were on patrol in east Tyrone. One of the other soldiers had found some weapons in another area so we were all dispatched to look for bombs, ammunition, weapons, anything really.
I was walking along when I stood on a pressure pad and boom. That was that. It’s funny as I have no memory of what happened before it but I remember every second of the explosion and afterwards.
All I remember is excruciating pain. And death, thoughts of death. I just wanted to die. I looked down and one of my legs had been blown off and the other was just about held together by nerves and veins. I begged the other soldier to shoot me there and then, there was just so much pain. I just wanted death. But he refused. And I owe that man my life as well as the other doctors and nurses who helped put me back together. When I was lying there I knew my life had just changed dramatically and I promised myself I would get better.
My left leg was blown off below the knee and the right was so badly damaged it later had to be amputated just under the hip. My belly was torn open, my arm broken, the tendons were severed on my left arm, and my pelvis was shattered in 18 places. I needed 52 pints of blood in total to be kept alive and had to have my gall bladder removed. I took a lot of putting back together!
I was immobilised for three months and just refused to do anything, I even refused to eat. So I was like a skeleton. I was in so much pain physically and emotionally, my spirit was crushed and I felt as helpless as a baby.
My family were devastated and in some ways it was worse watching what this was doing to them rather than what it was doing to me.
The physiotherapy was gruelling. It started off simple enough on my bed and then moved on from there. It was a long, hard road and there were many dark days.
To go from being a very physically fit and active young man able to carry other men on your back, to having to rely on someone to sit you up in bed. It is soul destroying. But I got through it and I owe that to a lot of people. The help and encouragement from my friends and family and the lads in the regiment is what helped me through.
Emotionally and mentally, I was encouraged to go to counselling and try occupational therapy. But I am not that type of person. I have always done things myself in my own way and that’s how I coped with it.
I had a lot of time to think things through in my head and come to terms with what happened. A lot of people let it get the better of them, but I didn’t. I was determined to survive. I have always felt the need to test myself and this was just another one of those tests. It was something I had to get through.
I got out of hospital six months later but it was four years before I was really finished with the treatment. In that time I started kayaking, fellwalking, running, climbing, jet-skiing, skiing, anything I could. I didn’t want to lie there feeling useless. I spent a year or so struggling with full-size prosthetic legs, but they’re not much use when you want to do sport so I changed to ‘stubbies’, a kind of plastic tube with rubber soles which attach to my stumps and let me get around pretty well, like I was walking on my knees.
I can even get up a climbing wall with these on. It was difficult at first and hard to get used to but I just struggled on and got used to it like everything else. It was the occupational therapy I couldn’t get my head around. There I was, someone who’d been a tough, strong paratrooper, being taught how to basket weave or varnish a box. I couldn’t wait to get out and see what I could still do.
Then in 2000 I did my first sky dive and my life changed forever. During that first 40 seconds of freefall I can’t explain the feeling, it didn’t really matter that I didn’t have legs, it was like it never happened. I was flying! It was the most exhilarating, amazing feeling I have ever had and I didn’t want it to stop. After that I just kept jumping and then went on to qualify as a coach. In 2001 I became Britain’s first doubleamputee to freefall and I entered my first competition in 2003 and won gold.
If it wasn’t for that fateful day, I may have never done a skydive and I also would not have met my wife Pixie.
I’ve never had a problem meeting girls. I’ve always been quite confident. Having no legs didn’t change that. I saw her at our home drop zone in Nottingham, she was still learning and we’d always end up talking to each other.
We went for a few beers one night and things went from there. We have the same interests, the same outlook on life, we can talk to each other about anything. She’s just amazing, the love of my life.
We originally intended to go to Las Vegas and get married by a Chinese Elvis. Don’t ask why — it was just one of those things we came up with one day. But then in 2006 we were in Arizona doing jumps from a hot air balloon.
We found out the guy in charge was actually a minister and just decided to go for it. One week later we exchanged rings before jumping 5,500ft from the balloon. There was no romantic proposal, nothing like that. Our family didn’t even know until we came back, but they weren’t surprised and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Pixie has never had a problem going out with a bloke with no legs. She jokes and said the only thing is that I’m smaller than her! But we have so much fun together and do things every normal couple does. As well as the skydiving of course.
Now we compete together, with me flipping twists while using a video camera to record her as she performs acrobatic dance routines. We won the British National Freestyle Skydiving Championships two years in a row and earned a place in the British Parachute Association’s GB team. The worst thing about all this is the way people react towards you. Adults — who should know better — are the worst. They stop and stare and point and talk about you as if you are deaf. They never let you forget. As long as these narrow-minded, ignorant people are around, you can never forget that you look a mess. But that is their problem not mine, and I try not to let it affect me too much.
What happened to me changed my life in many ways. I don’t hate anyone or feel any bitterness about what happened. Of course I felt angry for so many years, but it does you no good. It eats you up inside and can crush your soul.
I’ve had a lot of time to come to terms with what happened and now I just feel sorry for those terrorists who planted that bomb and I feel sorry for the people in Northern Ireland who are still affected by paramilitary activity every day.
I’ll never agree with their mission or any conflict for that matter. It is not the way to go, people need to move forward and let go. I let go of my anger and have come out the other side a better and stronger person. I really believe the saying what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
What happened to me has galvanised the way I am. I may be weaker physically, but my spirit is stronger than ever.
To sponsor Alistair you can contact Anna Howerski by email on email@example.com