BEN PARKINSON: Olympic triumph and a battle with MoD penny-pinchers

798 steps that were PURE GOLD: It was like running a marathon with three men on his back. But in the final part of a memoir to make you cheer him all the way, BEN PARKINSON tells of his Olympic triumph… and one final battle with MoD penny-pinchers

  • Ben Parkinson is the most seriously injured British soldier from the Afghan war  
  • He defied medics expectations to go skydiving and carry the Olympic torch
  • Receiving MBE he met Prince Charles who said ‘You are an inspiration to all of us’

Paratrooper Ben Parkinson is the most seriously injured British soldier to have survived the Afghan war, having suffered horrific injuries after his Land Rover hit a landmine. 

Yesterday, he revealed how he began his long road to rehabilitation in hospital with the help of his devoted mum and Army buddies. 

Today, he recalls how he defied medics’ expectations to go skydiving, carried the Olympic flame — and fought the top brass to win life-long financial help…  

Ben Parkinson (pictured with the Olympic Torch in 2012) revealed how he began his long road to rehabilitation in hospital with the help of his devoted mum and Army buddies

My mum Diane s made from a potent combination of love and steel.

When I was a kid, she was the sort of mum my friends loved to visit but knew never to cross — a lesson those working for the faceless, heartless behemoth that is the Ministry of Defence came to learn following the landmine explosion in Afghanistan which almost claimed my life in September 2006.

Both my legs had to be amputated above the knee and I was left with a twisted spine and lasting brain damage which wiped long sections of my memory and has affected my movement, speech, concentration and every aspect of my life.

The good news was that as long as I was in the Army, they had to pay for my care and I could avoid the long NHS waiting lists for occupational therapy.

Unfortunately, Headley Court, the military rehabilitation centre on the Surrey Downs, weren’t as keen to keep me as I was to stay there. Before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they did traffic accidents and sprained ankles.

It was only because of incredible advances in battlefield medicine that people like me were still alive and, with the number of seriously wounded soldiers doubling every year, their focus was on those they could get battle-fit again.

‘Cheers mate!’ My MBE response to Charles 

One sunny spring day in 2013, I went to Buckingham Place to receive the MBE for my fundraising work.

I was in my Number Ones, the smartest uniform we have, which was tailored to fit my longest set of legs, and for the first time in my life I had a pair of polished black brogues on my prosthetic feet.

One sunny spring day in 2013, I went to Buckingham Place to receive the MBE for my fundraising work. Pictured: Ben and Prince Charles

When my turn came, Prince Charles put his face close to mine. ‘Lance Bombardier Parkinson, you must be so proud to be collecting this award,’ he said as he pinned the medal on my chest.

Looking me straight in the eye, he added: ‘Ben, you are an inspiration to all of us.’

I wanted to say thank you, but the words wouldn’t come out. I stammered for a second as I tried desperately to reply. Then suddenly two words tumbled out.

‘Cheers mate,’ I said.

My biggest morale boost since moving there had been my first attempts at walking again using the white stubbies and Zimmer frame. When I took my first unsteady step, my cheeks ached from smiling.

‘We have never taught anyone with your injuries to walk before,’ the physio Jane told me. ‘But we are going to give you every chance.’

I lived for those sessions, but Headley Court called in an expert to assess my progress who decided, since I could not yet put on my prosthetic legs myself, resources should be focused on more ‘achievable outcomes’, like learning ‘wheelchair independence’.

Jane was told she could no longer work with me, but Mum was adamant I would walk again and when she made this clear at one of the case meetings, speaking on my behalf, a nurse told her she was cruel to raise my expectations.

Clearly everyone at Headley Court thought I had peaked.

‘If you add all the minute gains that Ben will make in the next 20 years, they won’t add up to a single significant thing,’ one of the social workers said.

Challenge accepted.

In a way, Headley Court becoming icier towards me gave us more energy to fight for what I needed. And towards the end of 2008 what I needed was a green light for a back operation.

The explosion had broken one of my vertebrae and the surgeons who treated me immediately afterwards decided against operating because the potential risks outweighed the benefits. My back had been getting worse ever since, leaving me hunched and crooked and in constant pain.

Chairs were excruciating. Eating was awkward. I had to crane my neck forward to get my face upright. It wreaked havoc with my balance and made walking ten times harder.

Headley Court sent me to the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville in Buckinghamshire where a consultant spent about five minutes examining me before announcing that many of his patients would be glad to have a back like mine and that he was recommending no further action.

It was not what we had hoped to hear so, back at Headley Court, Mum pressed for a second opinion in a meeting with Wing Commander Simon Paul, the consultant overseeing my treatment. My occupational therapist was also there and chipped in when Mum described my agony whenever I sat in my electric wheelchair.

‘We can fix that with a cushion,’ he said.

Mum glared at him. ‘He needs an operation.’

Eventually, Wing Commander Paul referred me to the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital at Stanmore in North London.

They agreed to operate, pointing out that otherwise my lungs might eventually be crushed as I became more bent over.

I couldn’t wait to have the operation and when Mum saw me in the recovery room afterwards she let out an involuntary gasp.

‘He’s lying flat!’ she said, welling up.

Ben recalls how he defied medics’ expectations to go skydiving, carried the Olympic flame — and fought the top brass to win life-long financial help. Pictured: Ben at Remembrance Sunday at Doncaster Cenotaph in 2017

I had grown nearly six inches during the surgery. That was how much I had lost from the curvature of my spine and now I had it back. I had made hardly any sounds since I was hurt but, as soon as I could sit slightly more upright, I started trying to talk.

It was really hard to form my words clearly and it would be another five years before I could get rid of my Lightwriter, a voice synthesiser which read out whatever I typed in a Dalek voice, but it was an important start and it felt amazing.

Straightening my back had transformed me. We tried to call Headley Court to tell them the good news and ask them to arrange an ambulance to pick me up, but we couldn’t get through. Eventually, we learned the promised land of military rehab had discharged me while I was still unconscious after surgery. It was only later that Mum found the letter telling us this on her doormat.

The only option was to take me back to Doncaster, where Mum had put my compensation money to good use.

Thanks to a campaign led by her, and funded by generous donations from Daily Mail readers, the government had reviewed the payments made for complex injuries like mine, helping not just me but many other wounded veterans, and increasing my payout from £152,000 to £546,000.

Using this, and generous loans from family members, she had bought me a specially adapted bungalow not far from the house I grew up in.

I am lucky that life doesn’t get me down, but these were difficult days. For the first time I shared Mum’s worry that perhaps I had been forgotten but, as so often in my darkest times, I was helped by the kindness of strangers.

At the gym, where my stepdad Andy had taken me to do some cardio work, I was approached one day by Dr Aidan Robinson, a chiropractor who had seen my efforts from across the room and said he could help me build up my strength. He was the first person who told me what I could achieve, not what I couldn’t, lying across my stumps while I did sit-ups and getting me into a proper weights programme.

Chairs were excruciating. Eating was awkward. I had to crane my neck forward to get my face upright. It wreaked havoc with my balance and made walking ten times harder. Pictured: Ben in hospital for surgery to help him walk again in 2017

Soon my life was further enriched by the charity Pilgrim Bandits, which helps injured servicemen. A lot of its staff are ex-SAS and they don’t believe in sympathy or wrapping you in cotton wool.

‘Lads like Ben are squaddies at the end of the day,’ the charity’s boss Mike Witt told Mum. ‘We give them challenges and a chance to have fun and take the p*** out of each other like they used to.’

In the years since, I have hand-biked across New Zealand and kayaked down Canada’s Yukon River with them. But I will never forget my first Pilgrims experience — a parachute jump with Major Al Macartney, the national skydiving champion, strapped to my back.

As we were freefalling towards earth, with Al spinning me around so I could see the Wiltshire countryside below us from every direction, I felt for the first time like Parky again, not a patient.

It was moments like that when I knew there was a difference between simply being alive and having a life — and there have been many more since, one of the proudest being when I was invited to carry the Olympic flame in Doncaster in June 2012.

By then, I had started physio sessions with Robert Shepherd, an amputation specialist who fitted me out with a new pair of state-of-the-art prosthetic legs, worth about £60,000, but the 300 metres I would have to cover with the torch was ten times further than I had ever walked before and that was always with crutches or a frame.

I wanted to do it unaided and, after countless hours of exhausting practice with Shep, the day finally came, only for the local organiser to tell me that it would take too long for me to walk the distance and that I’d have to do it in my wheelchair instead.

Fortunately, a large contingent from 7 Para had come to support me and a call was put in to our former commanding officer, Colonel Gary Wilkinson, who was in charge of the Olympics security operation and was quickly on the phone to the lady in Doncaster.

The day I was snubbed by Tony Blair 

One morning at Selly Oak hospital, Tony Blair came to visit. My room was right at the end of the ward and the then prime minister was working his way towards me.

A few minutes before he was due, one of the RAF liaison officers came in and started making small talk with Mum.

At first, Mum just thought she was being nice, but after a few minutes the conversation lagged.

There was a window in the door to my room and Mum looked through it and saw two plain-clothes policemen with their backs to her outside the door, like sentries.

‘What’s going on?’ she demanded. ‘Are they keeping us inside?’ The liaison officer looked uncomfortable. 

‘We don’t think it’s appropriate for the prime minister to visit Ben because Ben can’t interact properly with him.’

I think I was the only patient on the ward who the PM failed to visit that day. People can make up their own minds about him.

I was never much into politics, but I am no fan of his, to say the least. He should have had the decency to see me. 

I couldn’t speak, so I don’t know what he or his team were scared of.

He warned her she faced a public order issue if she didn’t let me walk. It was true. By now the crowds were almost 15 deep on either side of the road. Families with kids were waiting with their Union Jacks to wave me on.

Reluctantly, she gave way and, with the lads from 7 Para in a rank behind me, I took the first of the 798 steps which saw me hand the flame on 27 minutes later.

Collapsing back into my wheelchair at the end I was gasping for breath but I had made it. According to Shep, it was the equivalent of running a marathon, with three times my own weight on my back.

Mum stood next to me sobbing before leaning down to kiss me.

‘I am so proud of you Ben,’ she said.

I am equally proud of her. Although her campaign had already won compensation increases for me and many other veterans, she was not done with the MoD yet.

The time was fast approaching when I would have to leave the Army and Mum knew that there was no way my lance bombardier’s pension could pay for my significant ongoing rehab and the 24-hour supervision I would need.

A report in 2015 signed by General Nick Carter, who was then Chief of the General Staff, and General Sir James Everard, Commander Field Army, recommended that it was ‘vitally important’ that I should be included in a scheme ‘that provides appropriate care for so long as he needs it’, but no such scheme was forthcoming.

It was with a heavy heart, and no other choice, that we decided to sue the MoD.

As soon as they heard of our intention, the MoD jumped to attention, assuring us that everything could be resolved quickly and amicably. But there then followed endless meetings and each time they sent a different representative who didn’t have a clue what had gone on before.

Eventually, Mum decided our only option was to submit a ‘service complaint’ — a legally governed military process — specifically naming General Carter and General Everard as the subjects.

Within a few weeks of us firing both barrels, the defence minister Earl Howe took over the case and in return for dropping the complaint I was offered an index-linked annual allowance of £24,000 for life, to cover the extra rehab and living costs that the NHS doesn’t meet.

I left the Army in 2019 and that money means that I can carry on fighting to get better. I work on that every day. As for the future, I think I want the same as anyone. I want to drive a Maserati. I want to walk normally again. And then I would like to appear on Strictly Come Dancing. Even with no legs, I can’t be as bad as Ann Widdecombe. 

Adapted from Losing The Battle, Winning The War by Ben Parkinson, published on April 29 by Little, Brown, £20. © Ben Parkinson 2021. 

To order a copy for £17.60 (offer valid to May 1, 2021; UK P&P free on orders over £20) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.

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