I first met Andy Grant when he was midway through recovering from being blown up in Afghanistan. He hobbled into my office with a huge Russian-made cage strapped around his right leg with giant steel needles holding his leg together - it was a shocking sight.
Andy, 32, who comes from Bootle and now lives in Orrell Park, was injured in an IED (improvised explosive device) explosion in Afghanistan in February 2009 and had his right leg amputated in November 2010.
While out serving with 45 Commando, Royal Marines on Herrick 9 in Helmand Province, he was critically injured when a trip wire attached to two IEDs was triggered by the lead man, who was killed instantly. Both IEDs were detonated. After receiving life-saving treatment on the ground from his fellow Royal Marines, he was airlifted to Camp Bastion.
Andy suffered 27 separate injuries and woke up two weeks later from a coma in Birmingham, at the then Selly Oak Hospital. He had a broken sternum, two broken legs, a broken elbow and shrapnel lodged in both forearms. He stayed in hospital for a further three months receiving treatment. He was only 20 years old. For the next 18 months he spent all his time in and out of the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre, also known as Headley Court, in Surrey, where he began to adjust to life with his injuries.
With wounds to his right leg not healing as it was hoped, he was faced with a life-changing and extremely agonising decision. Whether to have his leg amputated. After a few hard months and time spent speaking with surgeons and his family, he made his decision. On the 25th of November 2010, aged only 22, he had his right leg amputated, just below the knee.
But it was prior to making that decision that I met Andy while he was on his first post-explosion break on a holiday in Mallorca, which had been organised by a former Irish Guard, Stan Bowles, in cooperation with the Majorca Daily Bulletin.
Stan owned a property on the island and had met Andy by chance on a train in the UK. They got talking and Stan decided he wanted to help Andy, give him a boost after all he had gone through.
Stan contacted me and asked if the paper could issue a plea for help from the local community. The response was amazing. Stan lent him and his then partner his house, while local residents, some of them former members of the armed services, offered days out on a yacht, dinner invites, BBQs, free drinks, etc.
“That week in Mallorca changed my life. I was in a really dark place when I came out to the island, I didn’t really know what was going to happen next and I certainly didn't know what the future held. I knew the Marines would look after me but I didn’t want pity, and to be given a desk job, that’s not why I joined the army aged 17 and saw action in Iraq before two tours of Afghanistan. I loved being in the army, I was in the Marines for nearly seven years and I wanted action.
“Mallorca helped me see some light at the end of the tunnel and it made me realise that getting blown up was not going to be the end of my world,” Andy told the Bulletin last week.
Since making the brave decision to have his leg amputated Andy has become an inspiration. He is now a much in-demand motivational speaker. Nike, for example, have flown him around the world from Boston to China to give talks. ITV made a one-off special documentary about his life called Paragon which is available on Amazon Prime. He has published a book called You’ll Never Walk, been made an Honorary Colonel in the Royal Marines, been awarded an honorary doctorate by Liverpool University, won numerous medals at the Invictus Games and is currently the fastest single leg amputee in the world over 10k - 37.17 minutes - beating the previous world record by 36 seconds. He proudly declared: “I am now officially the fastest man on one leg!”
But he says that the biggest event in his life was the birth of his daughter Alba. “She’s the one who keeps me on my toes and I love family life although I am extremely busy having just launched a new series of podcasts.”
However, some wounds will never heal. Andy’s mum, Joan, died from leukaemia when he was just 12, and he says: “Losing my mum was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through – and she will always inspire me and make me want to be the best I can be. I would always want her to be proud of me.”
He has certainly done that and will continue with the support of his family and he would no doubt this week have turned to them. “I guess having told my story so many times during my motivational talks, I became a story, my story. But watching events over the past few days in Afghanistan has opened old wounds. It’s brought it all back and it all seems so very real again.
“How do I feel? Sad. Sadness is the best way I can describe my feelings. We (the British armed forces) did such a great job in Afghanistan during the 20 we were on the ground and at a great cost, not just physically such as all of the lives that were lost, but also all of the soldiers like myself who were maimed for life and those who walked away with the mental scars which for many are the hardest to heal. There are thousands of ex-servicemen and women still fighting those mental demons from Afghanistan. Many will be for the rest of their lives.
“But as soldiers we did our job to the best of out capabilities. Now it is time for those in power, those who get paid so much more than we did, to get to work and sort this mess out. If it means dialogue and talking to the Taliban, so be it. This is not the moment to start getting angry again. That will solve nothing; in fact it will make things even worse.
“It’s now the time for the men in suits to shine and put as much effort as we all did in finding a peaceful solution - they can put their careers on the line, just like we put our lives.
“While they do that, I intend to push on with my new life. It’s been a crazy 13 years but I’ve learnt to take the rough with the smooth. Life is a roller coaster, it has its ups and downs, good and bad times and none of them last forever.
“When the bad times come, for whatever reason, it’s all about how you deal with the situation. Everything has a solution, you just have to find it, however small or large the problem might be. Nothing is going to last forever so make the best of life, seize every moment because, as I found out, you never know what is going to happen next.
“When I look back to that night in Afghanistan and how my life has panned out, I sometimes think that getting blown up was the best thing that could have happened to me.
“I learnt the hard way. Who would have thought a scraggy little kid from Bootle would have gone on to achieve what I have and been able to help many others through various charities on the way. And I have not finished - far from it.
“One thing I would love to do is return to Mallorca and give a motivational talk as a way of thanking all the wonderful people on the island who helped me in my hour of need. Mallorca put me on the path to glory.”
* To purchase Andy’s book visit www.amazon.com/Youll-Never-Walk-Andy-Grant/dp/190924581X