I’m not entirely sure how to go about describing Wounded without resorting to clichés, platitudes and syrupy hyperbole, and the reason that I want to avoid doing so is because this documentary didn’t either.
The filmmaker, Sarah Hardy, didn’t try to make us viewers weep; she didn’t offer up heavy duty sombre and sad incidental music or shadowy images overlaid with funereal narration. She simply offered a rarely opened window on the journey from horrific battlefield injury to civvie street recovery. But weep I did nonetheless.
I have sons of the same age as the two young men featured in the documentary, and I couldn’t help but put myself in the shoes of their mothers. At just 19 and 24 years old, in a mother’s eyes, they’re boys. But these boys were, and still are in every way that counts, fighting men. Men for whom courage is a vital necessity and for whom stoicism perhaps a comforting hiding place in which to shelter when the worst ravages of what they’ve been through come calling.
The film opened with what I initially thought was a reconstruction, but it wasn’t. It was actual footage of the moment that 19 year old Andy Allen of the Royal Irish Regiment was horrifically wounded by an IED – an improvised explosive device – which was stuffed full of dung too, in order to ensure infection was going to be a problem for anything that might be left of the soldiers who got the force of it.
On the film, a panicked voice can be heard assuring Andy that he’ll be ok as blood soaks the immediate area and flows into a canal. The trying-to-be-calm voice is that of the man with the camera, Andy’s mate, Foxy.
Just two days later, Andy was in hospital in Birmingham under heavy sedation, his stunned family at his side and his mother, Linda, desperately trying to be chatty and breezy as she talked to her unconscious son, who was now minus his legs and his sight.
In one particularly moving scene, Linda said, “If you could see what’s in store, you wouldn’t have your children.”
I’ve had cause to know exactly what she meant; it’s the horror of seeing your child – for no matter how old they are, they’re always your child – hurting in every sense of the word and being able to do absolutely nothing about it. If I hadn’t shed tears already, I’d have been weeping openly at that moment, but I already was.
She was afraid of what would happen when Andy came round, and justifiably so because when he did come round, his pain, both emotional and physical, was raw. One got the distinct impression that he might’ve preferred not to wake up at all. However, he was soon to be a father and he desperately wanted to be able to see his baby, so, as well as learning to use prosthetic limbs, Andy also needed several operations to try to get some of his sight back.
Meanwhile, 24 year old Lance Corporal Tom Neathway, was also in hospital in Birmingham and exhibiting extraordinary depths of formidable character. He simply refused to be cowed by his injuries, which included losing his legs and an arm, and regularly made jokes about his condition.
In describing what happened when he too was the victim of an IED, Tom said, “It was like getting rugby tackled, I suppose. Your legs get taken from under you.”
Since being wounded, Tom has endured more than a dozen operations and fought his way back to life each of the three times his heart stopped beating. And he’d done so with a cheerfulness that bordered on mania, and the psychiatrists at the hospital feared that Tom was going to face a “crash”. They believed he would arrive at a ‘moment’ when the full horror of his situation hit him, and for that reason, they advised against his being reunited with his colleagues in Cyprus. But again, Tom took this on the chin and just carried on with the business of getting better.
He approached his recuperation with what we viewers came to recognise as his familiar zeal, and he learned to use his prosthetic legs faster than pretty much anyone ever. He was determined to walk at his medals parade, and sure enough, walk he did. If Tom ever had that ‘crash’, we saw no evidence of it.
I desperately hoped for a happy outcome – or at least, as happy as it could get – for these boys. I wanted to see Tom walk in front of Prince Charles, and I wanted Andy to see his baby Carter, and those things did happen, but I wasn’t left with a sense of cheery closure.
These young men will spend the rest of their lives with part of themselves on a battlefield, and, even when this particular war ends, and long after the rest of us no longer hear news reports about anonymous mortality statistics and injuries, they’ll still be without legs, they’ll still have scars and hideous memories. Their families will still remember their lives before and after the moment they heard what had happened to Tom and Andy.
I hope that in years to come, Hardy will revisit these young men, lest we forget.