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IRA bomb victim cycling 3,000 miles across the US for mental health awareness

The soldier twice tried to kill herself after the atrocity at Thiepval Barracks before realising exercise was therapeutic on her arduous road to recovery

The young soldier Tara Robertson who was seriously injured in a double bomb attack
The young soldier Tara Robertson who was seriously injured in a double bomb attack
Tara in training for her charity
Tara (far right) with the female team of serving and wounded, injured and sick veterans who are cycling 3,000 miles from the west to east coast of America
A video still of the IRA bombing at the Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn on October 7, 1996

By Stephanie Bell

A soldier who was left suicidal after suffering a catastrophic brain injury in an IRA bomb is set to tackle the biggest cycling challenge in the world for mental health - the 3,000-mile Race Across America.

Tara Robertson was only 22 when she was caught up in an attack on Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn in 1996 while serving in Northern Ireland as a driver with the Royal Logistics Corp.

One soldier was killed and 31 people were injured in the atrocity which saw two bombs go off inside the barracks on October 7.

Tara's brain injury, which was caused by shrapnel, left her with visual impairment in both eyes and battling post traumatic stress disorder.

A young woman with her whole life in front of her, suddenly life as she knew it was shattered. She struggled for many years with crippling anxiety which led to her twice trying to end her life.

One of many forgotten victims of the Troubles, she credits exercise with helping her to battle back from ill-health. And now she is set to push herself to the limits to help others as she takes on a mammoth challenge to raise awareness of mental health.

She is one of eight women taking part in Britain's First All-Female Wounded, Injured and Sick Team tackling The Race Across America, covering 3,000 miles in nine days in June.

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The team is made up of wounded, sick and injured women from a variety of backgrounds whose aim is to inspire others and raise awareness of physical and mental health-related challenges.

Tara (44), who lives with her partner Michelle and two little Cairn Cross dogs Des and Rita in Taunton in Somerset, has returned to Northern Ireland twice on the anniversary of the blast as part of her bid to heal from the trauma.

As a young Army private back in 1996 she had been in Northern Ireland just four weeks when she was caught up in the explosion. And as she recalls the details it is not surprising that the trauma of what she came through is still with her even now, over 20 years on.

She recalls how she had just returned from a shopping trip in Lisburn minutes before the blast went off. "I had only completed my NI training three days before the incident and so I was only two days on the actual job," she says.

"Because we had worked all weekend we were stood down early on the Monday and I had lunch in the barracks with a friend and then we decided to walk into Lisburn to do some shopping.

"When we came back we had to book in at the guard room and the last thing I remember is standing outside it chatting."

Tara and two of her colleagues were just 30 feet from the first bomb when it went off. Tara was hit in the head and in several parts of her body with shrapnel. Her friend sustained minor injuries and the other colleague she was talking was seriously injured.

Predicting that casualties would be rushed to the medical centre in the barracks, the IRA had planted its second deadly device there.

One man who had been injured in the first bomb was killed when the second bomb exploded as he was being treated at the centre.

An unconscious Tara was taken immediately to the nearby Lagan Valley Hospital in Lisburn and later transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

"I remember waking up in ICU on ventilation and it was scary," says Tara. "They deliberately kept me sedated because they didn't want me to move my head where they had operated.

"It was five days before I was fully conscious. I don't even remember at what point I knew what had happened. I was in a lot of pain and quite disorientated."

She spent two weeks in the Royal recovering from brain surgery and a week in Musgrave Hospital before returning home to Reading to continue her recovery.

Remarkably she was back on duty in Northern Ireland just two months later. "Looking back now, it is all a bit of a blur but I did complete my six-month duty which I realise sounds a bit odd," she says. "I think I needed to be with people who had shared that experience."

It wasn't until her time here ended and she joined her regiment in Germany that the real horror of what she had come through hit her.

Being among colleagues who had no idea of what had happened in Northern Ireland, she found herself feeling isolated and her mental health started to deteriorate. Her injuries also prevented her from doing her job.

"My vision was impaired as a result of my injury and I lost my driving licence so I was a driver who couldn't drive," she explains.

"I wasn't able to perform duties as a soldier as I couldn't handle a weapon. My mental health continued to deteriorate and in 1998 I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.

"I wasn't thinking clearly and that year I took an overdose and tried to end my life as I couldn't see what was left for me. I actually was feeling that I would be better off in Northern Ireland."

Tara also had to return to Belfast for further surgery to have a metal plate put over what she describes as a hole in her skull. Doctors discovered she was also leaking spinal fluid through her nose which required another operation.

Ironically as she was facing the inevitability of being discharged from the Army and the end of her career, she was posted to work in an Army recruitment centre.

She says: "Each time I had surgery I had to get all of my hair shaved off and when I was working in Army recruitment after my second operation, I looked a bit of a fright. I am sure I wasn't the best advert for the job.

"I was waiting on my discharge and I wasn't sure what I was going to do with myself as my career was cut short and I couldn't drive."

She moved to Somerset to work in social care with young people who were leaving the care system and trying to live independently. Moving to a new town and feeling alone, her mental health suffered again and she reached such a low that she tried to end her life again.

"I bought a house and thought that having my own space was what I needed, but I soon realised how lonely I was and made a second attempt at taking my life which was considerably more serious.

"I was revived lying on my living room floor after the door had been broken down to get into me. It was a wake-up call."

In a bid to combat the loneliness, Tara joined her local gym to try and make new friends and soon discovered the healing powers of exercise. She took up running and then joined her local cycle club and was soon challenging herself with races and events.

She says: "I realised exercise was making me feel better and taking part in events kept me focused on a goal so that I wasn't just doing it just for the sake of it.

"It motivated me to train and I started doing 10km races and then half marathons. A friend was doing triathlons and I thought I would give that a go. I couldn't swim so I paid for swimming lessons and did my first triathlon in 2012."

Since then she has completed a 100-mile cycle event, a three-day cycle challenge, the Scottish North Coast 500 and cycled from lands End to John O'Groats. She also qualified for the 2017 Invictus Games in Canada where Prince Harry first appeared in public with Meghan.

Competing alongside other injured Army personnel proved powerful for her: "It was such an incredible experience. I came fourth which didn't even matter as I have never experienced anything like that before.

"It was so inspiring to be among such amazing athletes who were all facing their own personal challenges. Like me, many of them had hidden disabilities. I can't even find the words to describe how fantastic it was."

Despite what happened to her in Northern Ireland, Tara returned to the province to mark both the 10th and 20th anniversary of the blast which changed her life.

She says now: "What happened ended my career and had an enormous impact on my life and it still does to this day. I've been back to Northern Ireland a few times and it is always different every time I go back. You wouldn't even recognise it now compared to what it was like in 1996. I came back in October 2006 and October 2016 on the date the bombing happened. I think I was trying to make my peace with it. I'm not sure if I'll go on the 30-year anniversary or not."

Tara is now focused on taking part in the world's toughest cycle race in America on June 11: "I am thrilled to have an opportunity to take part in something so epic! At this point it feels a bit daunting to be honest, but I am really looking forward to pushing myself in the type of event I have never experienced.

"I am used to pushing myself physically when things get challenging, but this will really test my mental toughness.

"I have spent a lot of time taking part in individual events in the past but the recent North Coast 500 ride reminded me how supportive a team event can be."

And she adds: "I am looking forward to making new friends and supporting others as I'm sure they will for me."

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