Written by Justin Davis
I had just successfully realised my childhood dream of becoming a British soldier and after six months basic training whilst enduring an icy cold North Yorkshire winter, I was posted to the second battalion – The Rifles, in Ballykinlar, Northern Ireland. The battalion had just returned from an arduous summer in Sangin, Helmand, Afghanistan on Herrick 10 where, as a whole, the unit became truly battle hardened, but not without great loss. Most of my time in the unit was focussed on pre-deployment for the upcoming Herrick 15 winter tour. This was my dream, I had worked so hard for this. Deployment on operations was MY calling, MY challenge. MY test and it was about to become MY reality, I was ready for it.
There is smoke all around me, I am alone in the checkpoint super sangar. A bright flash followed by debris and smoke closely rushing past my face from the ground in an upwards vertical motion. A constant overpoweringly loud and metallic high pitched ringing is in my ears, my mouth is moving but no sound is coming out, the smell of burning flesh, fertiliser and the distinct metallic iron scent of fresh blood is in the air, my nostrils and mouth have been forcibly lined with dry dirt, debris and secondary fragmentation from the explosion. My personal weapon ripped from my grasp and violently flung out of sight. The metal detector in my right hand evaporating before my eyes like the special effects you see in a five star blockbuster movie. My helmet chin strap is inside my mouth and being forced down my throat, in a state of full panic I pull at it and begin to cough and choke violently. My eyelids now flickering, I pulled harder and harder until I choked even more. My vision blurry and all my senses in shock. In an attempt to escape my impending fate I notice all movement is restricted by an unseen force. Then, I wake up.
The force of my awakening was akin to being electrocuted, like when you are drifting off to sleep and you are jolted by the shock and feeling of falling into a seemingly never ending black hole and about to meet your imminent fate. My eyes now wide open. Breathing heavily, my lungs gasping for and clutching at all the available oxygen they could hope to attain. Unable to move anything but my head and left arm and seeing that I was no longer on patrol in Afghanistan, no longer was I surrounded by weapons and conflict. No longer did I have my personal weapon in my hand. I was now in a room on an intensive care ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham. All I could see was a brilliant-white featureless ceiling, being supported by four white walls, one with a clock on it above the door to my front. I had no idea or care for the time, all that mattered was that this was now my reality. I was surrounded by machines sounding a continuous high pitched alarm that was giving the doctors and nurses plenty of warning for my deteriorating and agitated condition. Both of my distraught parents watching knowing there was nothing they could do as I suffered this terrible nightmare.
After I began to calm down, my senses started to return. I noticed that my feet felt strange and there was nothing but what felt like a powerful electrical current running through them. With my left hand I lifted the thin white bed sheet that was covering the lower part of my body and I was presented with what can only be described as an utterly heart-wrenching horrendous sight. This was not a dream. Seeing the absence of both of my legs for the first time, I have never been so genuinely surprised and astonished in my entire life. For that split second I felt every single possible human emotion. With my senses still in shock and only just starting to realise what had happened a few hours before, I was now in a state of total code-red fear. I had never been this scared in my entire life. This was a rollercoaster I very quickly no longer wanted to be on. My world, my dream, the thing I had worked so hard for had just been completely shattered, the rug had been torn quickly and aggressively from under my feet and life as I knew it was over. I was completely heartbroken. Distraught. It was like losing a close family member, but on this occasion there was no warning, no period where you suspect, and no mourning period. It was instantaneous. I had gone from being a keen young infantry soldier; fit, robust and mentally strong to a young man who couldn’t even look at himself in the mirror. My body smashed to pieces, some of those bits I would never see again, left to the wild dogs that roamed the harsh lands of Helmand. How would I make it through this?
A quick visual check over my body; an oxygen mask over my face, a medical intravenous line in every remaining limb providing essential lifesaving support; drains in both of the stumps to remove any fluid build-up, reduce swelling and take away any foreign bacteria and dirt; a feeding tube up my nostril and down my throat, into my stomach. Intravenous drips in my forearm and neck. A catheter in my penis. My right arm contained inside a pressure bandage to keep my forearm together whilst it healed from the injuries it sustained during the blast. It was hell on earth. So much pain, discomfort and uncertainty. So many fluids being pumped into my system. I was a mess. Take me back to Afghanistan, throw me into a field or irrigation ditch laden with IED’s, I’ll be happy to take the chance and spin the wheel of Afghan roulette, once again. Anything but this.
A plethora of oral and intravenous antibiotics and painkillers would become my closest ally during this seven day period, and if I was to succeed and make it up to a normal ward I would have to allow my body get some much needed rest and recuperation.
Only a day or so before I was point man on a QRF (Quick Reaction Force) patrol on a task to intercept and cut of an ambushing Taliban call sign when unfortunately, in my haste to get to the enemy position I stood on and detonated a well concealed Improvised Explosive Device. My role as point man was to provide a safe route for the call sign to the enemy location, relay information back up the line and search for IEDs and mark a safe passage. I certainly found that one, although not in the conventional way, this time just with my toes. The force and ferocity of the blast immediately traumatically amputated my right leg just below the knee and, in doing so, leaving my left hanging by a couple of tendons and some burnt flesh. I clearly remember the freshly exposed bones to be a brilliant clean white colour marred and speckled with red-brown dirt. My right hand and forearm had also been caught in the blast and thankfully saved only due to emergency surgery in camp Bastion. Surely this was a dream. No, unfortunately it wasn’t. It was bordering on the surreal. It was instantaneous. My life was now in the hands of the team on the ground with me. Would I survive the next few minutes or even the golden hour? I had no idea. I was petrified.
Every single daily task you can think of was and is now an extremely difficult challenge. From sitting up in bed or just changing sleeping position. Making a cup of tea or just simply carrying a cup of water, going to the toilet, eating or just brushing my teeth. I could barely hold a pen or pencil. I had to learn to write just holding the pen between my thumb and index finger. You think a doctors handwriting is bad! It was completely life altering. To the amusement of others, coins would often fall through the gap where my middle finger of my right hand used to be, and onto the ground. We haven’t even got to the walking part yet! Everything and anything you can possibly imagine now had a new process and understanding to learn. Tasks would have to be adapted to suit my new body, and ability.
All those tasks are still a daily struggle, even seven years after the incident. I have had countless surgeries and alterations. With many nights spent in hospital all in the hope to become ever more active. I have some big goals and achievements in my sights and I’m not stopping in my hope to attain them. Life goes on. I adapt again. Then continue to grow and learn. Some don’t get this opportunity. This is my second chance. I’m going to shine.
I had never even seen an amputee let alone thought about becoming one! I am an extremely driven guy with a mind-set that has been honed like a sharp blade over the previous seven years, where I have endured pain and physical, mental fatigue like never before. However, I believe I am truly fortunate and blessed to have such a positive and relentless work-ethic mind-set. I knew this pathway was one of great risk and I accepted them and learnt to view them as my character. They are my teachings.
I was under no illusion that my career choice was fraught with danger. IED’s were quickly becoming the weapon of choice for the Taliban. A truly versatile weapon, and with little knowledge and equipment needed to manufacture them, they came in many forms but equally devastating in their ability to kill and maim, sometimes with pinpoint accuracy. You never knew how many you had walked past or simply stepped over, we just saw it as a hazard of the job.
A great number of times I have traced my actions back to the explosion and noticed how many stars had to align for me end up as wounded; a step to the right or a step to the left and I might not even be here writing this book. It was a matter of milliseconds. My path in life spun 180 degrees simply by a step on a small piece of ground. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer brutality of an explosion under your foot. Standing on an IED and recovering from such an injury takes time, perseverance, persistence, gruelling physical regime, a positive-optimistic mind-set approach and unwavering psychological resilience. It was the single most challenging time of my entire life to date. It’s not over yet. In fact, it’s only just began. To be honest I don’t see many harder tests out there. You can’t just decide to turn this off like finishing an endurance event or arduous tasking; this is there with me forever. No way out because it’s too hard or you don’t ‘fancy it’ any more. This is now a way of LIFE. I still have that high pitched ringing in my ears. I still have shooting pains, severe pins and needles in my toes and on the bottom of my feet till this day, I still have the vivid memories. The looks in people’s eyes. I still have it all. It’ll never go away but I accept and learn through the challenge. It’s a strange sensation knowing you don’t have feet but you can also feel every single part of them in your mind, it’s as if you could reach down and touch them at any time. They are just invisible. Phantom pains and sensations are just one small daily and constant reminder of what happened on that day. It is a reminder that I must fight on.
I believe that every single previous action in my life was building up to that pin point, millisecond in time that I stepped on that device. It was the moment I was to be reborn and thrust into a new, engaging and utterly challenging direction. One that was chosen for me. One of fight, perseverance, resilience, inspiration and gratitude. Looking back, was it meant to be? Was this how my life was planned by some unknown, unseen force. No one truly knows. But I can say with certainty that, I am now driving, FORGING a hard path to success and in doing so, spreading the message of positivity and resilience.
You make choices and take actions in life and they have reactions. Simple. You may as well make as many positive ones as you can as they flow and attract to the alike, and similar.
The power of the mind is incredible. Your most despicable enemy or wholly forthcoming ally. YOU decide. YOU.
If I could give just one piece of advice for those looking to push themselves, it would be to find comfort in the uncomfortable situations and explore them regularly.
BE more, DO more, GIVE more. ACHIEVE.
Justin Davis is a veteran of The Rifles regiment and was severely injured whilst on operations in Afghanistan. Now a keen property developer and entrepreneur with a hunger for inspiring others. Watch for his next endeavour at Assemble 2 Summit where he will be part of a team taking on the mighty Mont Blanc.