British war veterans during the Three Peaks Challenge

29-09-2016Humphrey Carter

This week a 14-strong group of wounded British army war veterans have been pushing themselves to their limits scaling some of the heights of the Tramuntana mountains. The group included serving and former members of a range of regiments and the medical support was provided by a Gurkha, not to mention drivers, and of course the NFA Events Organiser Rosie Thompson.

All have seen action in the field from the Falklands to Bosnia, Iraq one and two, Afghanistan, Kosovo and N. Ireland and all returned with wounds of varying degrees. Most suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Gulf War Syndrome and a host of other multiple wounds and conditions including brain damage and the loss of limbs.

However, their mental and physical wounds were not enough to deter them from taking part in the first edition of the Majorca Three Peaks Challenge organised by the only UK tri-service charity The Not Forgotten Association, in association with a very generous local British resident who kindly puts them and their partners up at her finca, the local community and the Majorca Daily Bulletin.

This is the sixth year the NFA have brought a number of groups of wounded veterans out to the island. Some come for some rest and relaxation, to enjoy a break from rehabilitation and the challenges of every day life out of the services, others come to train for fund raising events while others, in fact nearly all, come to spend a week with fellow comrades. The association’s motto is "from comradeship to challenge" by providing entertainment and recreation for wounded and injured service personnel and veterans and it has been doing this for nearly 100 years.

Last year, a group used Majorca for the first part of their training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and that is where the idea came from for the annual Three Peak Challenge.

This week’s hiking has taken the group up to Lluc, to Cala Murta, Formentor and then back up to near Lluc. It was slightly more demanding than expected plus the weather did not help, but that said the group had an excellent week and plenty of down town together to enjoy some camaraderie.

But this was no ordinary group of war veterans because amongst them was a Royal Marine and a Grenadier Guard who were both awarded the Military Cross for bravery in Afghanistan. South Africa-born Grenadier Guards Lance-Sergeant Markus Strydom MC, was on his second tour of Afghanistan when it all kicked off on 13 June, 2012. He still can not say much about the operation for security reasons.

"We were down in Helmand Province and this sniper nest had been taking pot shots at us for days, making operational life very complicated and dangerous. So, in short we decided to take it out. We monitored it for a few days, preparing the strike op. and then were good to go. At first it was small arms fire and then all hell broke loose.

"I was hit twice in the stomach from about five metres and once in the side. I was then blown up by a hand grenade. They say your life flashes in front of your eyes; that’s a lie! I just thought that this day can’t get any worse.

"I sustained multiple internal and external injuries, needed five operations in ten days and we had to put down in Cyprus on the flight home from Bastion because I was in such a bad way. Fortunately they flew my wife Claire out to be with me, had that not had happened, I would not be here talking to you today."

His platoon commander, Captain Michael Dobbin, was also awarded the Military Cross following actions in June 2012, but sadly, they lost a comrade, Lance-Corporal James Ashworth, also of the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, but he was given the highest military honour, the Victoria Cross, his being the second VC to be awarded in the Afghanistan conflict, according to the UK government. He was last in to the nest with the final grenade which killed the last remaining snipers.

"I was eventually discharged on 30 September 2014 and in October began working for Carillion, a leading international integrated support services business, which employs a lot of ex-military personnel and understand where we are coming from and is prepared to work around us, that suits me and the family just fine.

"Compared to many of the others (casualties) I guess I’m pretty boxed in (recovered) or as well as I ever will, be so I can get on with my life. But it’s still a struggle at times, especially when commemoration to fallen comrades come around etc. but, as I said, had it not been for Claire, who was with me all the time, lived through the whole recovery process, my anger issues, PTSD and all that, I wouldn’t not have made it. People forget, or perhaps don’t even realise that getting shot or wounded is like dropping a peddle into a pond, it has a ripple effect because it goes on to effect the family, then the extended family and friends. Being awarded the MC was a total surprise, I’m not sure if it was for sheer stupidity or bravery, I was just doing my job. But I’m extremely proud because I obviously did something right by me and, more importantly, by my men and I would do it all over again without a doubt. I know the army is getting smaller and smaller and all that crap is going on, but it wouldn’t stop me from going back out.

"But while that is highly unlikely to happen, the Not Forgotten Association has become vital part of our lives. This week has been absolutely fantastic, it’s been amazing. I love the hot weather and the trekking has been great and we all love it out here. This NFA week also allows us to relax, get to know old and new like-minded comrades and enjoy the banter. It brings back that sense of belonging we had while serving. You become a Guardsman and you know your place in the world and you work your way up.

"You have a great support team and great camaraderie. You’ve always got someone watching your back and you all go through the best and the worst together. And more importantly, when you die, the regiment carries your legacy. You are all part of a band of brothers and that is what happens here in Majorca, the NFA and our host does a marvelous job, it’s just a shame no other people follow this example. The amount of good it does the lads and lasses is priceless.

"Although there were comrades on the weeks trek suffering from far worse wounds than me, such as the double amputee from the Welsh Guards, it just blows your mind, it drives you on. You think if he can do it, so can I. Watching him smash his way along the paths, you have nothing but the utmost respect for the guy, you’re blown out of the water. And of course, once we get back to base, we all have a laugh about the day and try to put all our troubles behind us.

"I shall be flying back home feeling relaxed and in a much better frame of mind, ready for the challenges ahead and proud to have completed the three treks this week, Not only has it given me time to bond with other comrades, it has also given Claire and I some important time together in such a idyllic surroundings, and we can’t wait to return, if we can.

"We, just like the rest of the group and all those before us can’t thank the NFA and what the local community does for us on the island."

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