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Salute for hero as military honours its wounded

MoD responds to pressure from rank-and-file soldiers for greater recognition for injured troops

As Vice-Admiral Adrian Johns strode towards him, Marine Joseph Townsend saluted confidently. Back in his uniform for the first time since being wounded in Afghanistan, he smiled broadly as the Second Sea Lord pinned the distinctive Operation Herrick medal to his chest in front of his commanding officer, comrades, friends and family.

But the moving ceremony last week was far from the parade ground where Marine Townsend's comrades received their medals on Wednesday. Still weakened by the impact of a roadside bomb that destroyed his legs in the Upper Gereshk Valley last February, he could not make the journey to Norton Manor camp in Taunton, Somerset. Instead, a party of senior officers and well-wishers flew to Selly Oak hospital, Birmingham, to present his campaign medal in person.

Marine Townsend, who turned 20 just weeks after being injured, was determined to be out of his bed to receive his medal. His Regimental Sergeant Major, Kevin Moss, said the presentation was inspirational. "It was the first time he had sat up in a wheelchair unaided. It was great to see him looking so well with a big smile on his face. One or two of the ladies had a few tears in their eyes when he received his medal," he said.

"He is a young lad and just to see him sitting there was fantastic. It was emotional. He has got a long road ahead of him. I am sure there will be dark days, but he has got the capability to do it."

The pains taken to deliver Marine Townsend's medal reflect the military's increasing efforts to honour its wounded. The Government and the Ministry of Defence are under pressure to honour the Military Covenant, reflecting a growing desire among troops for recognition of their efforts.

The small emotional ceremony was a sharp reminder of what Vice-Admiral Johns described as the price the Royal Marines had paid for their success in Helmand. Twenty-five were seriously injured; three of them – Lieutenant John Thornton RM, 22, Marine David Marsh, 23, and Corporal Damian Mulvihill, 32 – did not make it home.

"They will be sorely missed," Vice-Admiral Johns told the marines at Taunton last week. "Every man on parade here will have their own way of remembering them." Among those on parade were two other stark reminders of the horror they had witnessed: Marine Mark Ormrod, 24, who lost both of his legs and an arm, and Marine Ben McBean, 21, who lost an arm and a leg.

Sergeant Major Bob Toomey recalled the moment he first saw Marine Ormrod after he was injured: "Because of the mines, we had to clear a route for the medic to get to Mark. The very first thing he said to me was, 'That's my dancing career over.' I said, 'No it's not, Rammers, no it's not.'"

Several hundred burly Royal Marines battled tears as Marine Ormrod took his first steps in public. The 24-year-old nervously lifted himself out of the wheelchair on his new legs. For the entire 45-minute ceremony he stood, as his nickname suggested, ramrod-straight next to them.

"It was a strange feeling," said Marine Ormrod with a smile. "I wanted to make some of them cry so I could take the mick out of them. I heard some of them sniffling. The worst thing was when the wind picked up and I thought it would blow me over. But if I had fallen over I would have got back up and cracked on again."