Daytime TV: Profiles in courage

The efforts of injured soldiers battling and laughing their way back to life leave Gary Day humbled

October 1, 2009

Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea," said that 18th-century sage, Dr Johnson. Proof that even the most powerful minds can be seduced by a uniform. Praise be mine's not in that category. But Jeremy Paxman's is. I seem to remember a few years ago that he was a bit down in the dumps because his generation hadn't been tested in combat.

Did he feel diminished because he hadn't killed anyone? He'd feel a darn sight more diminished if he himself were shot, bombed or blown up. Perhaps it was just a middle-age crisis and he's over it now. If not, I hope he watched Wounded (BBC Three, Friday 25 September, 9pm), a bucket of cold water in the face for any man foolish enough to think that he's Achilles trapped in a suit and tie.

While on foot patrol in Afghanistan, Andy stood on an improvised explosive device. It left his right leg hanging off. Some of the incident was captured on video. You could hear Andy screaming but not see him. There was a great deal of confusion. "Don't fucking look," Andy was told as he tried to see what had happened to him. "Don't fucking look." But he kept screaming and scrabbling for his limb. Then someone stabbed him with a syringe and he went quiet. It would be a long time before he woke up.

Andy was transported to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham. Did I mention that his face had been badly burned? It was the colour of churned marmalade. His right leg was amputated. "Bless him," said nurse Clare. "It's not the best day he's ever had." Andy's mum Linda paced the ward. "I just don't want to see his reaction when he comes round." Concern grew over Andy's left leg. The blast had driven mud, dirt and sand deep into the flesh. Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Jeffrey, a consultant plastic surgeon, explained that bugs were eating it from the inside out. There was a quick conference. Mum stroked her son's sleeping head. It was decided that the leg had to come off. The surgeon smiled at the camera. "I know I have made the right decision. I will sleep comfortably tonight."

When Andy eventually woke up, he couldn't see. His eyes looked like cloudy marbles. The staff were hopeful. They gave him eye-drops every two hours. But the treatment irritated him and he became uncooperative. His injuries, said one doctor, were beginning "to kick in now". Perhaps not the best choice of words in the circumstances. Mum was sorry that her boy was not saying "please" and "thank you".

A psychologist explained that Andy was trying to get back some control of his life.

Tom moved a sandbag and lost both legs and his left arm. "It was like getting rugby tackled," he said. He must have played a different version of the game from everyone else. He woke up one morning to find that his movements resembled those of an upended insect. But this was just a minor inconvenience that, Tom assured us, he would soon overcome. "I'm still me," he insisted. It wasn't long before he was playing tennis with the other amputees at the Headley Court Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre - a scene that would have delighted the painter L.S. Lowry. Tom flicked the ball on to the bat with his one arm and failed to serve. The others rolled around, literally, laughing.

Tom found it difficult to walk on stubbies, too. They look a bit like skittles, and patients use them to practise walking before graduating to full-sized artificial limbs. Tom fell over a few times, but you can't keep a good man down. "I'll be a ninja in three years," he grinned. With that attitude, it wasn't long before he was inching forward on the parade ground to collect his medal while Prince Charles spoke of matters he knew little of: courage, determination and sacrifice - the stale rhetoric of those who send young men to be maimed or killed for what is always a "just cause". All the same, Tom's dad pretended that his eyes were not wet.

Wounded was not about why we are in Afghanistan but about how two boys came to terms with losing their arms and legs. As if that had nothing to do with the war. Andy found it the hardest and was close to giving up at times. But with the help of his family, he battled through. Tom joked his way back to life. He looked at his hook and said, "This will be good for Hallowe'en." Watching them put their lives back together left me feeling very humble. What, really, have I got to complain about? Oh, by the way, Andy got some of his sight back. Let's hope we all do.

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