Ben Parkinson: Remarkable story of the Doncaster soldier’s road to recovery

Ben Parkinson during his epic journey on the Yukon River in Canada.
Ben Parkinson during his epic journey on the Yukon River in Canada.
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In his latest challenge Ben Parkinson joined other injured veterans by kayaking down the Yukon River in Canada. Chris Bond reports on the former paratrooper’s inspirational journey.

ATTEMPTING to kayak along a 250-mile stretch of the mighty Yukon River is a gruelling challenge for even the most seasoned wilderness explorers, so for someone who has lost both their legs and suffered debilitating brain injuries, it’s practically impossible.

The former paratrooper on his prosthetic limbs.

The former paratrooper on his prosthetic limbs.

But this was never going to stop Ben Parkinson. The 31 year-old Yorkshireman has spent the past nine years defying the odds and refusing to be defined by the terrible injuries he suffered while serving his country in Afghanistan.

Since then, Ben has become one of Britain’s best known wounded soldiers whose courage and fortitude have made him an inspiration to others. In 2012, he carried the Olympic flame through his hometown of Doncaster and the sight of the determined paratrooper on his prosthetic legs moved many people to tears. The following year Ben, said to be the most seriously wounded British soldier to survive during the Afghan conflict, was made an MBE.

He has come a long way but in September 2006 his future looked bleak. In the days after the armoured Land Rover he was travelling in hit a mine in Helmand Province, doctors told the family to prepare for the worst. Ben had broken every single rib, his spleen was ruptured and with his legs so badly damaged surgeons had no option but to remove both above the knee. His body was shattered and no one knew what damage had been done to his brain, but as he lay in a coma for more than three months the prognosis was poor.

When he returned home to Yorkshire the general medical view was he was being brought home to die. But he didn’t die. The fact that he woke at all defied many early predictions, but even then his family and friends were warned not to get their hopes up.

They were told any recovery he made would be small and whatever progress he had made by the end of two years would be it. Fortunately, Ben was unaware of just how grim doctors believed his situation to be. His rehabilitation started slowly but the last two years have seen him make the biggest improvements of all, including learning to walk again.

Determined to push himself as far as he can Ben has completed several parachute jumps, managed a 90-mile kayak up the Gironde River in France and trekked through the Arctic. In September this year he joined five other ex-soldiers in kayaking down a stretch of the Yukon River in Canadian Alaska. The fundraising expedition was in support of the Pilgrim Bandits military charity, which inspires wounded soldiers to live life to the full and for which Ben is an ambassador patron.

The journey was filmed by a team from BBC Yorkshire and the subsequent one-hour documentary - Journey Down the Yukon - A Soldier’s Challenge - is being shown on BBC Two this evening at 7pm. It follows Ben’s progress as he strives to complete the journey and all the obstacles that come with it.

The Yukon is one of the most remote rivers in the world and as well as the mental and physical strength needed to undertake such a daunting task, he and the rest of the team had to contend with fast-flowing rapids and potential encounters with bears and wolves, while camping out every night.

Ben, who was joined on the trek by his stepfather Andy Dernie and BBC One Show reporter Mike Dilger, invited the camera crew to go behind the scenes with him to provide a personal portrait of his intensive rehabilitation, as well as his open water training for the epic journey and the expedition itself.

The team faced numerous challenges out on the river - at one point a pack of wolves can be heard howling on the opposite bank - but these are nothing compared to the mountain Ben and his family have had to climb to get to the point where he is today.

Ben used a specially adapted boat, designed to help support his broken back. Because of his tremendous upper body strength, built up by working tirelessly in the gym, he managed the canoeing, but the pain he suffered from spending long hours in the boat became worse as they headed further north.

He also missed being able to use his prosthetic limbs. At one point he says: “Pain is merely weakness leaving the body. But in this case it’s not leaving the body it’s wriggling around staying there, annoying me, laughing at me. It’s not going.” Just getting in and out of the boat required a huge amount of effort and he ended up swapping his canoe for a kayak in order to complete the journey in less pain.

When asked about his motivation, Ben simply replies: “If someone says to you – you’ll never walk or talk, would you just be like ‘I’ll take it’ or would you fight to prove they are not right – to walk and talk again. So onwards and upwards for me.”

What’s striking is not only Ben’s determination, hard work and sheer bloody-mindedness, but his irreverent sense of humour which shines through in the documentary. So, too, does the love and dedication of his family. His mother Diane Dernie and stepfather, Andy, are his full time carers and have turned their South Yorkshire home into Ben’s rehabilitation centre.

Diane talks movingly about being told the dreadful news that her son had been so gravely wounded, and how she and Ben have fought different medical teams over the years who didn’t think his physical condition could improve further.

She is rightly proud of her son’s achievements and his burning desire to keep improving. “This is the life Ben wants and it’s our job to give him the life he wants,” she says.

Today, his speech remains a little slurred but he can make himself understood and is unrecognizable from the Ben of even just 18 months ago. He hopes one day to be able to walk without crutches and given how far he has travelled so far, you wouldn’t bet against it.

There are more expeditions being lined up including one next year that will involve swimming with sharks off the coast of South Africa.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, his stepfather Andy is full of praise for Ben and his willingness to take on challenges like the one in Canada. “It was brilliant for the charity and it was brilliant for Ben because it shows people that you can have a life even after suffering such serious injuries,” he says.

Ben has become the living embodiment of the human spirit and its ability to triumph over adversity. “We don’t know what he will do next but he will achieve it,” says Andy.

“I don’t think Ben has anything to prove now, he just wants to get on with his life and to get better and to be honest the more he does, the better he gets.”

Journey Down the Yukon - A Soldier’s Challenge is on BBC Two, tonight at 7pm.