When Dave Henson trains at his local running track in Portsmouth, he does not need to dig deep for reasons to keep going. Since he became the face of the Invictus Games earlier this year, captaining the British team and winning a gold medal in the 200m, people regularly approach him and tell him what an inspiring person he is.
“You kind of start questioning whether it really happened or not, because it was so awesome,” he says of the Games, which took place in London in September. “I never feel like an inspiration, because I just go and do the stuff that I do, but to have someone come up to you and say ‘I do ultra marathons and when I get to the 70-mile point I think of you’ – it makes you realise the impact that these projects can have.”
While serving in Afghanistan in 2011, Captain Henson was blown up by an improvised explosive device (IED) and lost both his legs. He had volunteered for the position of Royal Engineer Search Adviser, leading a unit of six men whose job was to go out looking for bombs so they could be disposed of safely.
“A successful day for us was not getting blown up. Some days we found no IEDs, some days we found nine or ten. In the four months that I was there, I was the only casualty on my watch, which is quite a good stat for me. A camel got blown up as well, but it wasn’t working for us,” he jokes.
On 13 February 2011 he embarked on what would be his final operation. “The rains had just stopped and it was a beautiful day,” he recalls. “There was no gunfire, it was just completely calm. We were conducting an operation to clear two compounds which had been used as firing points, so the locals could go back in and carry on with farming and go about their daily lives.
In pictures: Homeless Veterans appeal
In pictures: Homeless Veterans appeal
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4/20 Christopher Cole
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5/20 Maurillia Simpson
Former servicewoman Maurillia Simpson with the medals she won at last year’s Invictus Games
Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard
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Ashley Rosser, who served in the RAF, at the Veterans Aid hostel in east London
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Britain's Invictus Games captain Dave Henson says veterans’ charities helped rebuild his life
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18/20 Ian Palmer, professor of military psychiatry
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19/20 Douglas Cameron
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“We’d done a search of the area when I crossed the compound to get eyes on the infantry that were with us. I turned around and came back again and that was it – we’d missed one, and I’d found it. One hundred per cent record,” he says with a smile.
“I went up in the air, landed on my head, sat back up and looked down at my legs, which were in bits. I started screaming and pushing myself away from it, backing myself up against a wall. Then the lads came and squared me away. They saved my life.”
Henson says he still has “the odd nightmare” about being blown up, but generally tries to “look forward” and not focus on the past. “I don’t think it was with regret, but there have been times when I’ve thought ‘What if I took just one step to the left or one step to the right?” he says. “But in reality someone would’ve stepped on it at some point, and I’m here to talk about it, so it’s probably the best conclusion.”
The 30-year-old has plenty to keep him occupied. He and his wife, Hayley, 27, are expecting their first child, a daughter, in March. In the meantime he is training hard every day with the hope of competing at the Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016.
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He also spends a good deal of his time on charitable work. He is currently an ambassador for Walking With The Wounded’s “Walking Home For Christmas” campaign, which is encouraging the public to walk home from work one day between now and Boxing Day to raise funds for homeless and wounded servicemen and women.
In the wake of his injury, Henson himself benefited from grants given by ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, one of the two being supported by The Independent’s Christmas appeal for Homeless Veterans. After he was discharged from hospital, the charity’s quick reaction fund paid for a sofa-bed to be installed in the living room of his parents’ house in Southampton, which allowed him to live downstairs.
“It definitely made a huge difference,” he says. “We couldn’t afford to go out and buy this kind of furniture at the time, and it allowed me and my girlfriend to sleep in the same bed at home, whereas before we’d have to sleep on cushions off the sofa, which wasn’t ideal. People don’t really think about these things, but they are so necessary in a life where you’ve got altered mobility.”
Although he acknowledges he was lucky to receive the support he needed, he is aware of the issues that can face veterans when they return to civilian life. “People look at servicemen and women and think they are big tough guys and girls who go off and fight in wars – that’s fine, we’re comfortable with that,” he says.
“But when you come back you’re thrust into this big wide world where things don’t work the same – there’s not the discipline that you’re used to and it’s extremely difficult to come to terms with. Being in an environment where what people say isn’t always what they mean was quite weird.”
He adds that he is happy to support The Independent’s appeal, which aims to help veterans who have fallen on hard times. “These guys and girls just need a bit of a boost, a bit of a step up and a lift, because they’re capable of working hard,” he says. “Campaigns like this really help give them a steer, bring them back out and point them in the right direction. That potential workforce, be it on the streets, sofa-hopping or whatever, represents a massive asset to the country – their skillset is hugely desired.”
The Soldiers’ Charity also gave Henson a bursary of £1,000 to put towards his Master’s degree in biomedical engineering at Imperial College London, with a similar level of funding coming from Walking With The Wounded. He handed in his finished dissertation only ten days after the Invictus Games, and now intends to start a PhD in prosthetics design in April.
He hopes his research will change the way that prosthetic joints are designed, so they are easier for people who have had war injuries. For Henson, it means that his work carries deep meaning. “I wasn’t studying to get letters after my name, I was studying because this was something which I wanted to do for the sake of me, my friends and my family,” he says. “It was hugely personal – the fact that I’m getting qualifications out of it is a bonus.
“It’s completely beneficial, not just for me, but for my daughter when she comes along, if I can change the way that legs are designed so we can all go for a family bike ride. In turn, it will affect all the other guys who are in the same position as me.”