Wounded soldier’s long trek back to health takes him to ends of the Earth

Sgt Steve Young
Sgt Steve Young
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Injured in an explosion, Sergeant Steve Young was told he would never walk again. He tells Joe Shute how he defied the doctors and is now helping young recruits prepare for life on the frontline.

FIXING me with his bright friendly eyes, Sergeant Steve Young carefully explains the stuff of nightmares.

In Afghanistan, in 2009, the vehicle he was travelling in with six other soldiers careered off a road and into a canal where it flooded with filthy water, injuring three of them – two severely.

Despite ripping ligaments in his neck and having ammonia on his lung, just weeks later, Sgt Young hopped aboard another vehicle leaving Camp Bastion to hitch a lift back to the front line. He chose the sturdiest one possible – a heavily armoured Mastiff – and chain smoked as it rattled down the dusty desert road.

Two hours later, the vehicle triggered an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) packed with 110kg of explosives which blew up underneath his seat. Sgt Young, who was not wearing his seatbelt due to the trauma of being trapped in the canal crash, broke his back.

Lightning strikes twice with alarming regularity in Helmand Province – that the 29-year-old survived to be living proof, is miraculous. Following the second incident, doctors told Sgt Young he would never walk again. But he has battled to regain the use of his legs and earlier this year completed the first unsupported trek to the North Pole by wounded servicemen on a charity expedition alongside Prince Harry.

It is typical of the man that he talks of his frustration at currently kicking his heels at Harrogate’s Army Foundation College as his battalion, the Welsh Guards, heads out to Afghanistan.

“In Afghanistan I was in a strike platoon and was a platoon sergeant in support of a party of 28,” says Sgt Young, from Rhondda, South Wales, and a veteran of tours in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Iraq. “We ended up down to 11 men on the ground – we took a lot of casualties. We had seven fatalities in our battalion and lost our Commanding Officer. I was there for four-and-a-half months and there was daily contact with the enemy, one lasted 18 hours.

“At one point we had been fighting for days along a heavily IED’d road, we couldn’t get food or water and had asked to be picked up. The vehicle came and it was full of stuff, we packed in there and left. Only a few minutes later, the driver either fell asleep at the wheel or lost control and drove off the road.

“The vehicle rolled a couple of times and ended up in the water with all of us trapped inside. I remember being under water with lots of the lads screaming. I counted I had four breaths of water and I could taste the other lads’ urine in it and all the battery acid from the equipment as well. Then I passed out.

“Seven of us were trapped in the back, I was the fifth out. One lad was paralysed from the waist down, another burnt both his lungs with the ammonia in the water and was discharged from the Army. They took us back to Bastion, I had ripped ligaments in my neck and couldn’t move my right arm – I also had ammonia on my right lung. They sent me back for two weeks off, but I wanted to be back out there and got on a vehicle coming out of Bastion.

“I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt because of what happened to me before – it was the first time I had been back in a vehicle since the first accident and I smoked about 25 cigarettes. Then, there was a massive bang and I felt it go through my whole body. Back in Bastion, a doctor came in accompanied by a nurse who asked me if I understood that I would never walk again. At the time I was just thinking about me, I didn’t think about the impact on my family and friends.”

Sgt Young was flown straight back to the UK to Selly Oak Hospital, where he spent six weeks strapped to a spinal bed, followed by another two-and-a-half months at home.

“There were lots of lads with horrific injuries at the hospital at the time,” he says. “It almost made me feel guilty in a way. There was a 19-year-old in the bed next to me missing both his legs. We had a lot of banter there and it helped me get through it all.

“It was when I was in Selly Oak that I realised I was going to walk again – I still had some feeling in my legs and it started coming back fast. At first they said I would be able to walk with leg braces, then with a walking stick, I seemed to get better and better. I was very lucky and people were surprised.”

The mental scars from the bomb blast took longer to emerge, when the flashbacks, anxiety and sleepless nights were later diagnosed as a brain injury with symptoms similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sgt Young was sent to the military rehabilitation centre Headley Court, in Surrey, and started on the adventure training recovery programme Battle Back.

As part of the programme, he undertook a 13-mile marathon in Kenya in 2010, during which he heard about the charity Walking With The Wounded’s 180-mile trek to the North Pole. He was accepted on to the expedition as one of four wounded servicemen, and training soon began.

“I was spending six to eight hours a day pulling a tyre across a beach for three days a week. It was boring as anything and my back ached and throbbed. At one point I found myself listening to Shakin’ Stevens on my iPod to take my mind off it. Everybody had different reasons for doing it, but for myself it was just to prove that I could. At one stage I was going to be discharged from the Army and I wanted to prove I was still useful.”

The group first met Prince Harry in the autumn of 2010, then reunited in Svalbard, between Norway and the North Pole for the beginning of the trek in April this year, which was filmed as a television series. The team were delayed in setting off due to the weather and the Prince could not complete the trek as he had to rush back for the Royal Wedding.

“He was up there for three days with us and it was a shame to see him go really, but he had to get back,” Sgt Young says. “He was just a normal bloke and really chilled out. Pretty early on I stopped seeing him as a Prince – he told us to call him Harry. He was struggling at times, he joined after the training, but he was pulling the same weight as the rest of us. Any time anybody was struggling he would help out.

“The first day we only managed 5km because of the weather. The temperature was about minus 50 degrees with the wind chill. We were aiming for 15km. After that setback we managed to pick it up more and start putting the miles in. By the last five days we were very slick, everybody knew their jobs – in the end we got there five days early. We had been warned to prepare for an anti-climax when we finished. It was something very surreal and we had a tot of whisky and some cigars. It was only afterwards that it sunk in and I realised what we achieved.”

Sgt Young has been at the Army Foundation College since June, helping train 16 and 17-year-old soldiers and giving the occasional stern glance to those who mention his starring role on television. He is currently classed as a P3 soldier, meaning he is only eligible for limited deployment, but he is already set on his next challenge.

“This is a very rewarding job but I would love to re-deploy,” he says. “When I was out in Afghanistan it was the most fulfilled I have been in my life. At the end of the day, it is what I joined the Army at 16-years-old to do and what I love. The next challenge is getting fully fit – I still have a lot of physio on my back to do.”

It is clear Sgt Young will not be deleting the Shakin’ Stevens off his iPod playlist any time soon. Not until that plane back out to Helmand.

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