The para who fell to earth and found art

The son of former Army chief Sir Mike Jackson tells Terri Judd how a terrible parachute accident led to a new life

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The Independent Culture

"He is a bit of a ruffian," explains sculptor Mark Jackson, smiling up at the giant paratrooper towering above him. The worn features of the clay sculpture, with his broken nose, stares back as he bends to complete his parachute container.

It could be one of numerous war zones, for this nameless soldier represents every man who has served in the Airborne Forces in the last 70 years. For the first time in its history the Parachute Regiment has commissioned a national memorial. The burden of portraying a body of men with such a famous history has fallen upon Mr Jackson, Jacko to his friends.

"I have given him a worn countenance. He looks like he has been about a bit. He is a paratrooper and I didn't want it to be anything that didn't properly represent the regiment. They are not a beautiful bunch of boys," he says with a grin.

Jackson, 38, may dismiss himself as an "ex-soldier" and shrug off his many tours as irrelevant, but his language is peppered with the catch phrases of an officer and he cannot hide the personal connection he feels for his former unit.

He was literally born into the Parachute Regiment, the son of a man who is one of its most famous modern officers, former Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson. He followed in his father's footsteps, becoming an acting major in nine years.

Then a devastating parachuting accident in 2000 forced him to "take a year off work". Eleven months of recuperation for a smashed pelvis and hip, convinced him he could never get back to the same level of fitness, so he left. It was simple, he says. Having been an "art geek" at school, he simply put "Plan B" into action.

"Dad was more gutted than I was... When you have non-problematic injuries you can deal with it. But it is different when it happens to your child. He had an inflated idea of what my military career would have entailed. I was quite aware of my limitations. When I was in the Army people accused me of being vague and artistic and in art school I was too military. I didn't have that shock of capture with civilian street. I didn't really miss a beat."

Now his former and current lives have collided. To mark its 70th anniversary, the Parachute Regiment has commissioned its first-ever national Airborne Forces memorial. It will be sited in the tree-lined avenues of the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, which commemorates military lives lost since 1948.

Together with friend and fellow sculptor, Charlie Langton, he is creating an image of Pegasus with Bellerophon astride – to reflect the traditional airborne forces logo – and beneath will be a paratrooper fresh from a jump.

Walking into the pair's Dutch barn in Wiltshire, light from a high window bounces off a life-size winged thoroughbred rearing into flight, mane flying behind it. The clay, which will soon be sent for casting, gives an impression of the bronze statue that will sit near the memorial wall at the arboretum.

"Military life was one I had seen and it gave me a lot of confidence that was what I wanted to do. My father was becoming a known figure. But the Parachute Regiment doesn't give a damn. I knew it was the one place where it wouldn't matter. If anything, you get a slightly harder time because of it. But you are always going to get teased about something."

He joined the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, and served in Kosovo in 1999 with the elite Pathfinder Platoon. "At the time it was very interesting, but looking at everything since it feels like it was an overseas exercise."

He served on Operation Palliser in Sierra Leone. But a skydiving holiday in Spain changed his life. On the last jump of the day he turned too low to the ground and crashed to earth. Turning to friend and officer Ed Paxton, he said: "I think I'm quite broken."

Describing his injuries as "light" and insisting they only trouble him slightly now, he says: "You are in a hard-hitting organisation and doing a lot of work and suddenly you can't do anything. Your body now needs medical expertise. It is important to keep the faith, to get back to work." By his fourth stay at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre Headley Court, he knew he had hit a "glass ceiling" in recuperation. Deciding he needed funds to pay his way through art school, he volunteered for every tour going. In two years, he served in Macedonia, Kabul, back in Sierra Leone and then – just as he was preparing to wind down – the invasion of Iraq.

But in 2003 he left for Charles H Cecil Studios in Florence to study amongst the masters as a struggling artist, returning to London for reconstructive surgery.

His military past did not escape him. In 2006, with 3 Para enduring what was later described as the fiercest fighting since Korea, he was commissioned to do paintings for the regiment and was sent to Afghanistan. He flew in to Sangin by helicopter to be met by stunned faces of former colleagues.

His father, he explains, has been incredibly supportive, though he jokes: "He knows not to stray out of his comfort zone. When it comes to art, I have primacy."

He continues: "This makes sense to him. Some of the times in Florence he didn't know where this was going. It was not easy to see the point. But he gets it now."

The giant statue, funded by donations currently being collected by The Parachute Regiment Charity, is due to be unveiled next July.

He says he is not nervous about the reception: "I think you are anxious about the concept at the beginning. But by the time it is unveiled we will have lived with it for so long. I am looking forward to it. It will be a great day."

To make a donation in support of the creation of a Parachute Regiment & Airborne Forces memorial please click HERE.

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