My short but interesting Army career

Me and mum after prize-giving

This post began when I saw a picture of me and my mum as I was flicking through my photo album. I only planned to post the picture and ended up writing a rather lengthy post about my Army career and how it ended. I hope it’s of interest to someone, but even if not, it’s been kind of fun to look back and figure things out in terms of dates and locations.

It all began in 1989. I left school with little to my name by way of qualifications and, on 18 June, at the tender age of 16, I headed off to the Army Apprentices’ College in Harrogate, North Yorkshire to begin my Army career as an apprentice Radio Telegraphist in the Royal Corps of Signals. I signed up to do a two-year apprenticeship. Basic training was tough. Being away from home for the first time at 16 is hard enough, but enduring six weeks of hardship was almost intolerable. It’s funny, but as I look back, it really doesn’t seem like it was that tough. But, at the time, it was. I’m sure my mum still has the letters.

Somewhere between the start and finish of my basic training, we were obliged to take a modern languages aptitude test. This involved looking over a list of Kurdish words with their English equivalents for a few minutes, then turning the papers over and writing down as many English equivalents as we could recall. I did well and, on that basis, was offered the chance to change my chosen trade to that of an Electronic Warfare Operator (EWOP). I had no clue what that was. All they could tell me was that it involved studying Russian intensively for two years and was some sort of intelligence work. I had four weeks of summer leave to think about it, during which, as fate would have it, my dad was doing a job for a guy who had served in the same regiment. He hadn’t been an EWOP, but a Spec Op (Special Operator), the other trade in the regiment that was affiliated to the intelligence services. Seemingly, the EWOPs and Spec Ops worked closely together and the guy explained to me that I was being offered quite a lot more than I thought I was. So then I decided that, yes, I did want some of that after all.

I did pretty well at the academic side of things, and could even shoot pretty well, but when it came to the military stuff, I was pretty average.

After a year of training, we were on an external leadership exercise in the Lake District. We were doing a map reading activity that involved some pretty hard walks over the mountains to various checkpoints within an allotted time. Our instructor, in his infinite wisdom, suggested that we take a short-cut up a cliff face. He went up first, followed by two or three others, then me. We did have ropes, but we weren’t using them for some unfathomable reason. The instructor dislodged a rock, which tumbled down the cliff face and hit someone above me a glancing blow on the head, knocking him off and into me. I remember the feeling of overbalancing as the weight of my Bergen pulled me backward. Next thing I know I was bouncing down the loose scree at the bottom of the cliff and couldn’t stop.

Day of accident, 18 July 1989

I had multiple open fractures of my tibia and fibula on my right leg, as well as a broken scapula (collarbone), fractured skull, broken teeth and some pretty bad cuts and grazes. I had landed on my right leg and then continued down the slope at rather a high velocity.

I was eventually taken off the mountain side by helicopter and the long process of surgery and recovery commenced. My first operations were in a hospital in Whitehaven in Cumbria and it was basically touch and go as to whether I would keep my leg or not. The open wounds were full of dirt and the chance of infection was high. Thankfully I was able to keep my leg, although there were many times when I wished I hadn’t. It would have been a much quicker process to get back on my feet again with a prosthetic limb and I still had a reasonable amount of good bone below the knee. But the leg was saved.

After a while I was fit enough to be moved to another civilian hospital nearer my family. I left for Scotland in an ambulance with an external fixator keeping the bones together. I was there for quite a while and enjoyed being in a place where friends and family could visit. After a while, some military bods paid me a visit and the question arose as to whether I was to remain in a civilian hospital or be moved to a military hospital. I decided to move back into the arms of the military and had a brief spell in a hospital in Yorkshire before moving on to the specialist burns and plastics ward at the Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital in London. It did feel better to be back with the military again. The treatment was better than in civvy street and I got to meet a lot of really great people, both patients and staff alike.

As you will imagine, some of the injuries one comes across in a military hospital are of a rather horrific nature. I became good friends with two Manchester lads who had been shot by the IRA on their way home from babysitting for their sergeant major. Scary.

I was in the burn and plastics ward to have skin grafts done over the open wounds. Skin was taken from my upper thighs and grafted on to the wounds. It took a LONG time for those grafts to take and it was a horrible time. The pain was simply unbelievable. After a while, I was moved to the orthopaedic ward where I spent another month or so. Eventually I was deemed fit enough to recuperate at home and thus began the long process of travelling by train up and down from Glasgow to London once a month for x-rays and check-ups.

One of the things I remember about my stay in Woolwich was sitting outside the front doors after breakfast, smoking fags and listening to Simon Mayo on Radio 1. I could wheelie my wheelchair all the way from ward 7, down in the lift to the ground floor and out the front doors without the front wheels touching the floor. And when I got onto crutches, I could walk on just the crutches alone with my feet off the ground. I guess I must have got pretty fit after a while of walking on crutches.

DMRC Headley Court

After the hospital in London I was sent to Headley Court, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre near Leatherhead in Surrey. I was examined there and it was decided that I needed more surgery, a bone graft that was to be done at yet another military hospital, this time in Aldershot. Bone was taken from my hip and grafted onto the tibia. After healing up from that, it was back to Headley Court where, this time, I was deemed healed enough to start the process of learning to walk again. I have great memories of Headley Court; it was July–August 1990 and very warm I seem to recall. We spent the whole day engaged in various exercises, my favourite of which was volleyball played sitting on the floor. I remember the warm evenings and going out on the piss in Leatherhead. One of the Manchester lads that I knew from the QEMH in Woolwich appeared while I was there. We spent evenings playing Monopoly and it was round about then that I was getting into listening to The The’s Soul Mining and Depeche Mode’s Violator albums.

I always knew that I was going to be discharged from the military after I’d recovered as much as I was going to, but they allowed me to go back to Harrogate and complete my training. I spent the next year on light duties, i.e. doing just the trade training with none of the military crap. I was even given the apprentice sergeant major’s en-suite bunk. I guess I was a bit of an oddity there, especially being as status very much depended on how long one had been “in”. So it wasn’t long until I had been there longer than anyone else; I even wore the red senior term ribbon for a whole year!

Me on my Bully Bashguard

During that year I healed well enough to start riding my BMX again (I was a fanatic about BMX freestyle and perhaps still would be today if it hadn’t been for the accident). I used to ride my bike on the parade square in the evenings and weekends. There were metal plates holding the bones together so there was little danger of doing any damage.

It came to graduation day and I picked up the prize for best Telecommunications Operator (Linguist)—the name had changed to that from EWOP during my year-long absence. I remember the Adjutant-General congratulating me on successfully completing the first rung on a long ladder, so I had to put him straight.

During the course of the second year at Harrogate, I’d been to visit consultants and they offered me more surgery to have my clawed toes straightened. So I went back to Woolwich to have that done and went back on sick leave again for a while.

During my sick leave, I had discussed with the military orthopaedic consultant the possibility of having more surgery to have my leg lengthened. After all the surgery, it had healed crooked and was two inches shorter than my good leg. So, in June 1992 I went back to Woolwich to have an Ilizarov frame fitted. At the time, I was one of only a few to have had this type of surgery in the UK. When I got back to Scotland on sick leave, I was invited back to the hospital where I had been a patient the previous year to show off the technology to the consultants there, as they’d never seen one in situ before!

Ilizarov Frame

Mentally, this was much more difficult to deal with than the first series of operations. It was one thing going through all that surgery to fix me up; it was quite another to go in all fixed up to get broken again.

So I was back on crutches again for pretty much another year, and this time flying up and down to London and back on the Army’s tab. It all went well and I got much of the length back again.

I had told myself that, as soon as this was all over, I was going to visit North America and travel. I lost my walking stick on a bus from Niagra Falls to Buffalo and never used a stick again. That was June 1993, so a year since I had the Ilizarov frame fitted, and four years since the accident.

I’m now left with some pretty bad scars, intermittent sensation and clawed toes. My ankle doesn’t move beyond 90º and I get pain quite a bit. I can walk pretty well, but I do have a limp. Sometimes people who’ve known me for a while suddenly notice the limp and ask what’s up. I had to give up the BMX biking because of the ankle thing.

I had some x-rays done a week ago and it turns out that my leg is still short and could lead to back problems in later life. So I have an appointment with an orthopaedic consultant for next Wednesday. I guess it never really ends.

Some time between now and then, I proceeded with a law suit against the Ministry of Defence and ended up with an out-of-court settlement for compensation. It wasn’t a huge amount, but it did pay off the student debts that I had accrued between the accident and my graduation from University. As I was healing from the final operation, I went back to school for two years and got what I needed to get into St Andrews University where I studied Russian language and literature. That’s a whole other story though!