Former Royal Anglian Stu Parker was once told that he would never walk again unaided after having been caught in the worst case of friendly fire in Afghanistan. Within a year of being discharged from hospital he was walking again and has since gone on to run a host of full marathons, including New York twice. "I can’t run as fast as I would like but it gives me more time to take in the scenery."
And despite what happened to Stu, he is very much the life and soul of the party. Stu, who joined the Royal Anglian Regiment in 1994 aged 17, is currently in Pollensa helping a group of fellow veterans who served in the Falklands, Iraq I, Northern Ireland and Afghanistan on a week-long break organised by the Not Forgotten Association.
In total, in this first group of three which will be coming out as guests of a very generous British resident in the northeast of the island, there are 19 this week. Stu, who drove down from Cambridge on his motorbike (best solution for depression he says), is helping NFA events organiser Rosie Thompson with the logistics, etc.
It also give him a welcome break and something to look forward to as well. Those who watched Ross Kemp’s series on Afghanistan may remember seeing Stu and what happened to him and his fellow soldiers on TV. Stu, however, has not watched the last episode which featured the friendly fire incident he was caught in.
"It’s odd. I remember the time exactly. It was 6.30pm"
On the evening of 23 August 2007, Stu and some 60 soldiers from the regiment came under attack as they were out on a routine patrol shortly before dusk from their remote base near Kajaki in northern Helmand. Their mission was to infiltrate Taliban-held territory and help establish security around a strategically vital hydroelectric dam, being renovated to provide electricity for the province.
Footage taken from a soldier’s helmet camera revealed how men from the Royal Anglians were ambushed in twilight as Taliban fighters opened fire. As the firefight intensified, a joint tactical air controller called in a US air strike. "The coordinates were called in and then called back from the bombers. I guess you expect to hear the correct coordinates called back and the attack goes ahead. However, one of the digits in the coordinates called back was wrong and a 500 lb pound bomb was dropped by a US F-15 a kilometre off the target on top of our position. Three of the lads were killed and two of us, including me, were category 'very serious'.
"I suffered blast lungs, spleen and pancreas loss as well as mass organ damage and a broken leg, a perforated left ear in which I am still partly deaf, a ruptured stomach, a shattered left hand, severe burns, one took off a tattoo on my upper left arm, and shrapnel wounds. That was the end of my scuba diving career that was for sure."
Stu was air evacuated straight back to the UK to Glenfield Hospital in Leicester.
"It specialies in lung and heart injuries and it was the only hospital at the time which had a special bed which would move me every 15 minutes. I was in a medical coma for six weeks and if I had not been moved I would have drowned in my own fluids. Doctors actually told my parents that it was a life or death situation and could have been just a matter of hours. I was later told I was the sickest in the hospital, that is definitely a competition no one wants to be winning.
"I was eventually admitted to intensive care at Solihull Hospital which is where I came out of my coma. I had gone to sleep in Afghanistan and woke up in Birmingham; didn’t look that different. I weighed 10-and-a-half stone, the thinnest I had been in over 20 years, and was missing a few bits and pieces. It was also there that I was told I would never walk again unaided. That wasn’t nice to hear," said Stu who celebrated his 41st birthday in Majorca on Sunday - 11 years after his medical discharge.
From Solihull he went to Headley Court for rehabilitation and that is when he had to quite literally start getting back on his feet and thinking about the future out of the army. Since joining up, he had served in Bosnia, completed two long tours of N. Ireland, Belfast and Londonderry and then Sierra Leone before two tours of Afghanistan in 2002 and 2006.
"We were in fact the last out of Sierra Leone before the Royal Irish Regiment was deployed. It was very tense out there, we always carried gold sovereigns in case we were kidnapped. We warned the Irish to keep their eyes on the West Side Boys all the time, we knew how dangerous they could be.
"After having been admitted to Headley Court it took me a full year to go from wheelchair to walking and I came across the Not Forgotten Association and Rosie by chance at a function at St. James’s Palace. I guess I had got myself in to the best physical condition I was going to get and I felt pretty good.
"There were obviously mental issues but I managed to get a grip of those on my own. I managed to put my demons to bed. Yes, at first I was angry, very angry about what happened, but we’re all human and in those kind of situations, under extreme stress, things will go wrong. People will make mistakes, it is just that some are bigger than others.
"The US Consulate sent me a letter of ‘best wishes’ for my recovery, did little to help. But I soon gradually got over it and moved forward. Yes, I’ve had the odd wobble over the past ten years but this is where the Not Forgotten Association came in. For the best part of the last decade it has been my family and my saving grace, as it is for over 10,000 veterans and a few still serving members of the armed forces.
"So, I got involved with the NFA and, thanks to Rosie and with Rosie, went on to run a whole series of marathons to raise funds and awareness from Belfast to New York, Normandy, Brighton etc. and a number of half marathons. I qualified for my yacht skipper’s licence and have crossed the Atlantic twice with a crew - I fancy doing it solo at some point - trekked across the Falklands and have gone on various other activity events such as carp fishing and the likes, all through and thanks to the NFA.
"Going through the inquiry into what happened that night in Afghanistan was not much fun, but it was standard procedure. Yes, I lost some very good friends, but I have no regrets. I would do it all over again. I was and am proud to have been a British soldier."
This is Stu’s second trip down with the veterans to Majorca and he said that the week-long visits, whatever the boys and girls want to get up to- are priceless for moral; it’s magical.
"This week some of the veterans have come with their wives and this is very important because, as Rosie explained, it is not just the wounded who suffer, the whole family does. These breaks give the veterans, whatever their age, a chance to be amongst fellow servicemen and women again and switch off from their daily lives at home which, for many, can still be a challenge."
This week, for example, the emphasis is on painting. Their host is an internationally renowned painter and teacher, so they want to learn to paint. The next two groups may be activity groups, but they have yet to be organised.
But one thing that Stu touched on, as have many of the veterans I have spoken to over the past six years since the groups began coming here, is that being part of the NFA is like being part of one big family.
"It does what it says on the tin, no one is forgotten and being the only tri-service association it is able to reach out to so many. You have to think that most of the Royal Marines, Paras, Royal Irish and Royal Engineers here had probably never met each other until they got on the flight. Just listen to them all, they’ve hardly been here 24 hours and they’re all getting on like they’ve been the best of mates all their lives. It’s that human touch the NFA provides and for many of us it means the world. I often paraphrase Martin Luther King when I talk to wounded veterans. He said ‘If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward’.
"I turn it on its head and tell them if they can crawl, they can walk, if they can walk they can run and then if they can run, they can fly. Onwards and upwards, that is what it is all about and should any of us drop off the radar, have a mental relapse, the NFA is on the end of the telephone. That is what I told a platoon of wounded veterans when I was their welfare officer.
"I guess after an experience like mine, although many more have had it even tougher - I know a triple amputee who is a total athlete and there is no holding him back - it’s about growing again. Some get very reclusive, many are on heavy prescription drugs, which are not easy to come off, alcohol is a problem and what they need in their lives is a purpose, something to look forward to and that is what the NFA does. It gives us a plan, a project to focus on."
Yesterday, the veterans were relaxing after an evening at Son Amar as guests of the owner Margaret Whittaker OBE, who generously always invites the veterans to the show. They had an amazing night and some of the comments made after the show included: "Memories Made", "There are no words to describe that", "The best night of my life", "Mesmerising" and "That was a 1000% morale boost for me".
And that is how the NFA, their host and all those who cooperate in organisng and backing the trips, including the Majorca Daily Bulletin, want the veterans feeling when they return home.
"Having seen both sides, I decided to offer my services in helping the NFA run events and also help any veterans when I can. Sometimes a good chat with someone who knows where you are coming from can do the trick, it’s that personal touch."
And never one to miss a chance for a laugh, he rolled out his best anecdote of having been blown up.
"Pretty much the only thing that survived having a 500lb pound dropped on my position was my Casio G Shock watch. Trouble is the strap is starting to go, perhaps I will write to them and tell them just how bloody strong their watches are. Who knows, I could be the next poster boy for G Shock watches. I bet they’ve never tested their watches to that extent."
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