Page last updated at 12:13 GMT, Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Amputee veterans Battling Back


How to ski when you can't use your legs

By Frank Gardner
BBC News in Bavaria

Tom Neathway cuts an unusual figure, 6,000ft (1,829m) up in the Bavarian Alps.

With one arm and both legs amputated above the knee, the 25-year old Parachute Regiment corporal is skiing in a "sitski", effectively a wheelchair without the wheels, mounted on a single, racing ski.

Below him stretches a slalom course of ski poles, zigzagging down the mountain towards a snowbound village; beside him a sergeant major with a stopwatch.

It has been less than a year since Cpl Neathway was blown up in Afghanistan. In July his unit was at Kajaki, in Helmand province, occupying a sandbagged emplacement that was supposed to have been swept for booby traps.

Cpl Tom Neathway
Cpl Tom Neathway never believed he would ski after his injury

But they missed one. When Cpl Neathway moved a sandbag, it blew up beneath him and at first his mates thought he could not possibly have survived.

Yet now, only months later, after surgery, hospitals, rehab and a prosthetic arm, Tom is working his way back to fitness on a Ministry of Defence rehabilitation programme called Battle Back.

He says: "I never thought at the beginning of this that I'd be able to ski down a slope let alone at the pace I do.

"I never thought it was possible, but I'm doing it."

Battle Back is designed to get badly injured servicemen and women back doing adventure training as a means to regaining as much of their physical life as possible.

It is the brainchild of Fred Hargreaves, a British Army lieutenant colonel who dreamed it up in a bar in Andorra.

He says: "I was sitting there having a drink with a friend and there were these disabled skiers, civilians, coming in with adapted ski kit, and I thought: 'We've got all these injured blokes coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq, why can't we do something like this for them?'"

According to Mr Hargreaves, for every soldier killed on operations there are roughly four more injured, of which one will be seriously injured.

Lt Col Fred Hargreaves
It can turn their lives around from being in quite a dark place
Lt Col Fred Hargreaves

Mr Hargreaves researched the US Wounded Warrior programme, a nationwide rehab scheme set up in 2003 for similarly injured US servicemen. He received backing from the charity Help For Heroes, £50,000 from the defence budget and he was off.

Last year he ran a pilot scheme in the Alps; this year it is the first full course.

He says: "The guys come here and quite often it's the first adventurous or active activity they've done since being wounded.

"It can turn their lives around from being in quite a dark place, quite depressed about their injuries."

Also on the slopes this month is Phil Meadows, a 23-year old lance corporal from the Queens Dragoon Guards who was blown up in Afghanistan in November.

You can listen to Frank Gardner's Battling Back programme on BBC iPlayer

He says: "When the roadside bomb went off beneath us it sounded like a big pane of glass breaking.

"Then I was slumped forward on the turret. I picked up my leg and realised it was hurting a lot."

This is something of an understatement. Phil's heavily armoured Mastiff vehicle had been hit by a concealed device. The force of the explosion buckled the vehicle's hull and smashed his right leg.

It was amputated through the knee 10 days later. Phil had become the latest among over 150 very seriously wounded servicemen to come back from Afghanistan and Iraq with life-changing injuries.

Yet now he is skiing confidently on one leg and keeping his balance with a pair of outriggers: mini skis attached to the end of crutches.

An Army ski instructor hovers just behind him, barking instructions: "That's it, carve the turn, use the poles, shift your weight!"

Phil shows not one ounce of self-pity. He is clearly more interested in improving his technique than moping over what happened to him.

'Cold feet'

Back at base camp next to the ski slope, preparations are underway for the final race.

Prosthetic limbs are being passed up and down, then attached to stumps and there is a fair bit of banter.

"I've got cold feet about this race," says someone.

"Well aren't you lucky?," chips in an amputee. "I wish I had two feet to get cold."

Anyone with an amputation below the knee is known as a "scratcher", as in: "It's nothing, it's just a scratch."

A sergeant from Essex who took a blast wound to the groin in Basra is known affectionately as "Testicle".

Sgt Stuart Pearson
Veterans, some of whom lost limbs in minefields, have found their confidence boosted

One soldier, an above-leg amputee, has never quite forgiven his mates for visiting him in hospital with a copy of Runners World magazine to wind him up. He has a t-shirt that reads: "I went to Afghanistan and all I got was this lousy false leg."

Now it's Cpl Neathway's turn, tucked into his bobski with his prosthetic arm gripping an outrigger to help him steer.

With no-one helping him he heads straight down the slope, having decided that he should be allowed to miss one slalom gate for each missing limb.

To huge applause, he is the clear winner. "I've always been quite confident," he says later, catching his breath.

"If they put me at the top of a black run and said go for it, I would go for it, that's the type of guy I am," he added.

As everyone relaxes afterwards I can't help wondering: what next? What happens after this course is over? Has anyone given some thought into how best to employ these motivated young people?

"It can be quite demoralising for them not knowing exactly what they're going to be doing if they stay in the Army," admits Mr Hargreaves.

"Deciding where and how to employ severely-injured servicemen is still a work in progress, and there probably needs to be a bit more direction here."

But he points out many of those now on the course have already found new roles within their regiments, and one man has been promoted since his injuries.

Above all, it seems to me, this is about attitude.

L/Cpl Meadows sums it up. Drawing hard on a cigarette, pinched between his thumb and forefinger in the time-honoured soldier's fashion, he looks up the mountain towards the sinking sun and tells me: "Battle Back has made me realize I can still do things I did before, it's given me more confidence.

"Now I know I can do the same things other people do, I just do them in different ways."

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