Their bodies were changed by war, but a determination to excel remains undimmed
In the gym at Tedworth House, a young soldier with severe internal injuries, sustained after being shot in the abdomen in Afghanistan, takes his first steps back to fitness.
Above him, on the wall of the Wiltshire military rehabilitation centre, hangs an example of just how far that road can go: a photograph of Derek Derenalagi, beaming as he races on his two prosthetic legs. Five years ago Derenalagi’s friends in the 2nd Battalion, The Mercian Regiment feared he would not survive catastrophic wounds after his vehicle was hit by a mine in Helmand. The 37-year-old is about to represent Britain in discus. Martin Colclough recalls only too well taking Derenalagi to his first national competition. He pitched up 15 minutes late and they had to beg the officials to let him take part. It was a haphazard start to a triumphant sporting career that has led, earlier this year, to gold at the Paralympic Athletics European championships and could yet bring Paralympic glory.
“His personal admin is shocking,” says former Major Colclough, with the same paternal affection he uses when talking about rower Nick Beighton, who lost both his legs in Afghanistan three years ago and first turned up for a Paralympic talent identification day still wearing a medical cage to support his pelvis, and cyclist Jon-Allan Butterworth, who he supported through his first frustrating attempts on a bicycle.
As head of Phoenix Battle Back at Help for Heroes, a programme that works with the British Paralympic Association and has backed six of the eight former veterans competing for Team GB, Maj Colclough has watched them progress from men with wounds that would once have been unsurvivable to world-class athletes.
In the last four years, Battle Back has helped 1,500 injured personnel enjoy adventurous training and sport programmes, nurturing 80 into elite athletes. Already they have 30 more hopefuls preparing for future Paralympics. It is part of a wider Ministry of Defence recovery programme that has mushroomed in recent years with the help of huge investment from charities.
The pool of potential talent is depressingly large. In the six years of combat operations in Iraq, 182 servicemen and women were classified as very seriously injured or seriously injured, many losing limbs. In the same time frame in Afghanistan, a further 580 have suffered major wounds. But Battle Back has proved a perfect marriage between the bloody minded determination of once-fit service personnel with the facilities the military and wider community can provide.
“The guys have incredible mental strength and drive. For some that determination is to get back to their military career, for others it is to get well so they can get married,” says Maj Colclough. Getting into sport can be a major driver, he says, and the difficulty is often not an individual’s reticence but quite the opposite. “One of the bigger challenges with the guys is not letting them over reach too early.”
The military community, with its inevitably extensive experience of injury, also offers a support network.
Charley Streather, 54, a former Lance Corporal and amputee welfare officer for the British Limbless Ex Service Men’s Association (BLESMA), who lost his leg many years ago, remembers meeting Derenalagi.
“Nothing was going to stop him,” he said. “But he is not the only one. I have lads who have lost both legs, are missing one arm and blind and are still like that. Some of the lads I have met have made me cry all the way home.”
Maj Colclough will also be getting emotional in the coming weeks, though the cause will be pride. On Wednesday he will carry the Paralympic Torch on its way to the Olympic Stadium, and in the days after that he will watch the athletes he has nurtured represent their country.
That, he says, will be a tortuous kind of pleasure: “It will almost be unwatchable. I am going to be five again – hiding behind the sofa like I did when I watched Dr Who.”
Case study: I don't want any silver medals
Jon-Allan Butterworth, 26, a former RAF weapons engineer-turned-cyclist, is a gold medal contender for Team GB, competing in five events on the track and road. He lost his left arm in Iraq in 2007 and, like many of the veteran-turned-elite athletes, started out through Battle Back. He is not going to the Games “for the taking part”.
“Every event I enter, I’ve got a good chance of getting a medal,” he says, “but I’d trade them all in for one gold medal. I don’t want three silvers.”
Following trials, he was selected for the Para-Cycling Talent Programme in April 2009 and subsequently left the RAF and started training full-time – six days a week, with two to five hours of sprint and endurance every day.
For Butterworth, cycling is the only sport worth doing. In fact, he admits running with the Olympic torch was a struggle. “Cycling is all that matters,” he says.
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