From Oman to Wales: Wounded veterans find a cure in trekking together

Walking With The Wounded charity founded by Prince William and Prince Harry is helping hundreds of former soldiers

A stream of machine gun fire ripped into Ben Gallagher when he dashed through a doorway, knocking him off his feet as he led an operation against extremists in the Middle East.

The bullets tore across his torso, deflecting off his body armour but then shredded his unprotected left side, including his arm. Seven rounds penetrated his body.

Requiring life-saving treatment, he was immediately taken to England and underwent major reconstruction surgery.

At first, it was thought he could return to military duties after therapy.

But after intense training sessions it became apparent he could no longer perform at a high military grade. Away from his unit, alone and with his mental health declining, Ben attempted to take his own life in February last year.

He had reached rock bottom. But his spirits began to lift when he was given the chance of joining fellow injured military veterans for an arduous trek in Oman led by Walking With The Wounded, the charity strongly supported by both Prince William and Prince Harry.

The organisation, famed for taking amputees across the North Pole and up Mount Everest, has proven a vital link in Ben’s recovery, both mentally and physically.

“It has given me a sense of purpose, focus and direction during a pretty difficult time in my life,” he told The National. “I wasn't fit for military service anymore, and I needed to be involved in something. I’d lost that military edge and this gives me the focus to move forward.”

However, with Covid still causing problems, the walk has been switched from the sand dunes of Oman to the damp hills of Wales and England.

On Sunday, Ben and five others will attempt to replicate the Gulf walk by trekking 400km from Pen-y-Fan mountain in Wales along the historic River Thames path finishing on October 21 at the Anglo Omani Society in London. With the less challenging heat conditions, they have doubled the daily march distance to around 40km to complete it in 11 days.

Setting out with them will be former RAF mechanic Andy Phillips, despite a back injury that saw his sciatic cord fused to the base of his spine following some “violent surgery” in 1991.

Each day he walks will be a remarkable achievement. For 23 years Andy was taking the maximum amount of prescribed fentanyl opiate and drinking heavily to keep the pain at bay.

He had endured major spine injury after being stationed with Tornado fighter-bombers to Tabuk airbase in Saudi Arabia in 1990 following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

Despite suffering excruciating back pain, as well the threat of Scud missile attacks, he continued working. By the end of his tour he could barely walk and, on returning to Britain, he had a prolapsed disc diagnosed.

Following surgery and rehabilitation, he was forced to leave the RAF, where he had served since the age of 16.

Andy descended into the world of opiates and drink, along with a divorce, homelessness, relentless backache and a deep well of depression.

“It was very painful and the pain remains with me every day but I’ve learnt to live with it,” he said from his home in Swindon. “With the sciatic cord fused, if I bend forward, it pulls into the brainstem and if I try and straighten, my legs shake because the cord’s being stretched.”

He continued the daily routine of painkillers until 2014 when by chance he spotted that the inaugural Invictus Games, founded by Prince Harry, would be taking place in London. He also learnt they were designed specifically for wounded veterans, hoping to use the power of sport to inspire their recovery.

“The idea really appealed to me because I'd really missed the military community.”

Andy was immediately taken on but opted against any track events.

“Younger lads might have lost their legs but they were still really fit so I decided to give archery a go. And it really suited my injury while massively helping my mental health.”

He became the team captain and won a gold medal.

“For me, it was an almost instantaneous overnight cure, it just flicked a switch in my head that had been off until the Invictus Games. I realised how bitter I was with the military.

“Everything before in my life was negative, it was all about, ‘I can't do this, I can't do that’. Nothing in my life was positive. I learnt to stop worrying about what you can’t do and focus on what you can do when you push yourself. It also drew a line under my military career so I actually felt like I'd gone out on a high.”

The sporting achievement inspired Andy to become a scuba diving instructor and then led him to consider becoming a qualified pilot. But the aviation authorities would not let him fly while taking opiates so he gave up the painkillers and went “cold turkey”.

“It was probably the best thing that I did because I'm totally clean now.”

Flying microlight aircraft also helped his back.

“It's perfect. It's a supine sitting position with my knees bent, so it’s a really comfortable as all the pressure is off my spine.”

But he was still having to work fitting kitchens until he had a physical check up with an army doctor.

“He told me that I was either going to be dead or in a wheelchair in the next five years if I carried on.”

Andy, 55, was subsequently awarded a war pension.

Overcoming his physical and mental challenges Ben too has a thirst for new adventures.

After the Oman trek had been postponed twice, he took up the kayak challenge of paddling from John O’Groats in Scotland down to Land’s End at the southern tip of England.

Now, Sunday’s trek has given him something to focus on as his military days end.

“While autumn in England won’t be Oman, it's still going to be challenging and it’s bringing together a group of injured veterans who share common ground. And ultimately it's about raising money for charity.”

Another element is that Ben realises he is making connections with people who can potentially help him if he hits lows in the future.

“I’ll just know that it’s there if required, but for now it’s about giving something back.”

And he has a full calendar of challenges to fulfil. Next March he’s running the notoriously tough Marathon Des Sables race of 250km over six days.

Then he will begin planning for the Explorers Grand Slam, walking to both the North and South Pole and climbing the seven continents highest peaks, including Mount Everest.

Like Ben, Andy was looking forward to Oman because “my spinal injury likes the flat and loves the heat”. Instead it will be the wet, cold hills of Britain which he knows will prove a “massive challenge”.

He will attempt 20 kilometres a day but realises this could well trigger back spasms, forcing him to retire for a few hours each day.

But his efforts have provided inspiration for those younger men and women who have been injured on more recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’ve also found that because of what I've been through, the younger guys will listen to me, to a certain extent more than a nurse or a psychologist who hasn't served.”

Andy, who will be the oldest walker, has a simple philosophy. “You've got two options in life. You can sit back and feel sorry for yourself or you can actually just get on and live life, but you also have got to push yourself within your limits.”

That determination and spirit has been recognised by Prince Harry.

“These men and women have seen and overcome adversity, and they won’t let obstacles get in their way,” he said. “They are paragons of inspiration for communities everywhere. We wish them good luck and good weather.”

Find out more at www.wwtw.org.uk

Updated: October 11th 2021, 5:11 AM
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