Remembrance Sunday: David's story - Afghan hero has no regrets
Bomb disposal captain who lost legs is inspired by war veteran granddad
When the grandson of Harry Henson, a Second World War veteran, told him he was planning to join the Army, his granddad had a simple message for him: "Don't do it, lad!"
Harry, 85, says that, although he "skipped off whistling" to the RAF in 1944, that wasn't what he wanted for young David. "I was 18 when I went into the RAF and there was a war on," says Harry. "I was keen to get in there, keen to do my best. But when it came to David, it was different. You worry far more about your family than you do about yourself. And when it's the young ones, with their whole lives before them, you worry all the time."
David did go into the Army – and just over a year ago, like his granddad before him, he ended up in a war. "When he went to Afghanistan we thought about him constantly," says Harry, who lives in Durham. Earlier this year, he was having Sunday lunch when the call came to say that David had been caught up in an explosion. "It was David's dad, Russell," remembers Harry. "He said David had been badly injured, and that they already knew he'd lost both his legs."
He pauses. "It's difficult to take that kind of news in – you can't quite believe the strapping lad you knew will have to go through the rest of his life with no legs. And, for me, it was particularly hard, because I'd tried my best to dissuade him from going in."
What's especially poignant is that Harry himself is disabled; he went blind in 2005, his eyesight problems probably partly caused by the radar work he did back in the 1940s. "But I'm an old man now," says Harry. "I didn't go blind until I'd lived most of my life. David has so much of his life still before him."
Today Harry's grandson – Captain David Henson of the Royal Engineers – is at Headley Court in Surrey, the rehabilitation unit for soldiers disabled on active service. He still faces an uphill battle to get himself back "on his feet", as he puts it. But he says he wouldn't have changed a thing about his life: "I'd make the same choices again, without a shadow of a doubt," he says. "I worked in bomb disposal. By the time I got blown up, I'd found probably 20 bombs and made them safe. That was 20 or more lives saved; so, absolutely, my sacrifice was worth it."
David, who's 27 and grew up in Southampton, says he knew he wanted to be a soldier when he heard an army recruitment officer describing the life he could expect. "As soon as I heard what the Army offered, I knew it was for me. It was active, it was adventurous ... it appealed," he says. After university, he went to Sandhurst, passed out from there in 2008, and worked as a troop commander before moving to bomb disposal in February 2010. In October last year, he went to Afghanistan.
Bomb disposal work, he says, is enormously stressful – but hugely rewarding. "It's a fantastic job because you're saving lives. It's taxing and stressful, of course –but it's a different sort of stress from the stress of other soldiers, because it's a slow stress. When you work in bomb disposal you usually don't have bullets whistling around you, but there's always the background threat that you're about to step on an explosive device."
That happened to David, on 13 February this year, during a routine operation in Helmand. "We were clearing two compounds, and I was walking across the second of them when I was blown up. It sounds odd to say, but I didn't realise straightaway what had happened. I tried to sit up and I realised that my legs weren't in the same state they had been a few seconds earlier.
"The men with me applied first aid and arranged for me to be evacuated. While we were waiting, I even managed to have a cigarette. By then, I knew my legs had gone.
"But you do think about the possibility of this sort of injury – and that's helped a lot in coming to terms with it. The initial shock is huge, but I was already aware of what the recovery process would be, of where I'd be taken and what would happen next. And, from the start, I knew I'd walk again."
Within eight weeks, David was trying out his first pair of prosthetic legs; within 18 weeks, he had a proper pair fitted. By the time he saw his granddad again, he was walking. Harry remembers the day. "I was staying in a centre run by St Dunstan's, the charity for blind soldiers in Brighton, and it was close enough to David for him to visit me. As soon as I heard his voice, I could tell he was walking again. He said he was swaying a bit, and tottering, but it didn't matter – he was getting there. I was as proud of him then as I've ever been."
David says the message his granddad gave him that day was simple, and will always be with him. "He said: never give up. It's straightforward, which is my granddad all over, and he's right – it's what matters most."
Today both Harry and David will be at war memorial services, as they are every Remembrance Sunday. Harry has travelled to London to take part in the Cenotaph veterans' march-past, as he does each year; David is going to attend an army memorial service on the south coast, although he says he hopes to avoid the limelight. "I'll probably go in my wheelchair and cover up my legs," he says. "I don't want anyone to make a fuss."
Harry says this year's event will have an extra frisson of sadness for him because of David's injury. "I'll be thinking of my fallen friends and colleagues, as I always do," he says. "But I'll be thinking of David, too, because he's never far from my thoughts."
For details on St Dunstan's go to: www.st-dunstans.org.uk/together
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