“WHEN I saw all the cyclists coming towards me, I got goosebumps, a lump in my throat. Later, as I opened my mouth to thank them, all I could say was, ‘this time next year, I’ll be there with you’”.
Last June Justin Henderson was working at the Help for Heroes Recovery Centre, Phoenix House in Catterick, when hundreds of cyclists, many of them veterans, stopped at the centre as they made their way from Edinburgh to Windsor.
Mr Henderson’s vow to join them was a lot more than a promise to raise money for the forces charity, it was a statement about his recovery. One that this summer, will be fulfilled.
In February 2012, the York-born father-of-two was serving in the Royal Logistics Corps as a postal courier when a freak accident left him with a broken back and unable to walk more than a few steps without having to retreat to his wheelchair. During 16 and a half years in the forces, he’d served in Cirencester, Germany, and Northern Ireland, where he met his wife Sam, but he knew that part of his life was now over.
“As soon as I found out I’d broken my back I knew I’d never be back in military uniform again. That early acceptance of facing civilian street was a godsend,” Mr Henderson, 39, said.
He spent time at a recovery unit in Germany before moving to the Help for Heroes centre, where he now works as Front of House, greeting soldiers, veterans and their families as they begin the often slow and difficult recovery from injury - knowing first hand what they are going through.
His job, he says “gave him purpose”, but it’s his wife Sam, “the real hero in our relationship” that he credits with getting him through his mobility struggle.
But last January last surgeons replaced the fractured L5 vertebra with a prosthetic vertebrae, giving him the chance to walk again.
“To look at me now, you’d never think anything was wrong,” he said. “After my accident I couldn’t walk more than three steps. After the operation, I never went back in the wheelchair.”
It was just a few months later when, while at work at Phoenix House, the cyclists passed through on their way to London.
Mr Henderson said: “Even now I can’t watch the video of it. These guys were freezing cold, wet, and gritting their teeth to get through.”
He was given a recumbent bike by Iraq veteran and Invictus Games bronze medalist Claire Edwards, a friend of his wife, and in November took part in a week of cycling challenges with Help for Heroes to mark the 100th anniversary of World War One. But nothing on the scale of his next challenge.
In June, he will cycle 260 miles from Catterick to Windsor over five days as part of the third Help for Heroes Hero Ride. The full ride begins in Edinburgh, but for the first year, cyclists can join from Catterick.
“In November it felt so good to be part of a team, getting back in with the guys and having a laugh,” he said. “The next challenge is now just around the corner, I’m excited, nervous, apprehensive, worried if my back will hold out, whether I’ll make it, but with the training and the right people, it’ll be worthwhile.”
On June 21, the 2,000-strong peloton will sweep into Windsor, the culmination of journey that is so much more than simply the miles the cyclists will travel.
For the first time, there are 50 places available for supporters of Help for Heroes to join at Catterick and ride alongside 20 wounded, injured and sick veterans.
Phoenix House centre manager Mo Usman said: “We know from past experience that Hero Ride can have a life-changing effect – both physically and mentally - on those we are supporting through recovery. To be part of that important journey is equally exhilarating for members of the public who cycle alongside them.”
To find out more visit www.heroride.org.uk
To support Mr Henderson and Help for Heroes, visit www.justgiving.com/justin-henderson