Since being elected as the MP for Burton I have had the privilege of visiting some incredible places. Yet without a doubt this week I had the most inspirational visit of my political career. As a member of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, I spend 22 days a year with the RAF, and it has allowed me to visit both the Falklands and Afghanistan. It was on a trip to Camp Bastion to visit the troops that I learned about the trauma hospital which deals with the casualties and helps save the lives of servicemen and women injured in combat. Since then I have taken an increasing interest in the welfare of our injured troops and as a result, was invited to visit Headley Court in Epsom in Surrey.
Headley Court is the home of the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre and is the Armed Forces’ premier rehabilitation facility. It has 96 inpatient beds and 135 hostel rooms to house injured soldiers, and state of the art medical and rehabilitation facilities including physiotherapy, prosthetics, and speech therapy, that aims to help rebuild the shattered lives of brave servicemen and women injured in the defence of their country. If a soldier is injured by a roadside bomb, they are initially treated in the trauma centre, and then flown back to a brand new military surgical ward at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. But it is when the immediate medical needs have been addressed that Headley Court takes up its role. I was moved almost to the point of tears with what I saw at Headley Court.
The first young man I met was Jake, a 22 year old Grenadier. Jake was injured when he stood on an IED, an improvised explosive device. Jake was hunting down insurgents with the butt of his rifle under his chin as he bravely moved forward and was about to enter a compound when the explosion happened. The force of the explosion threw him into the air and forced the butt of the rifle into his chin, breaking his jaw, smashing his teeth and destroying his soft palate. As a result, Jake lost both of his legs above the knee, the thumbs and many of the fingers on both of his hands. You could understand Jake feeling sorry for himself. His whole life ahead of him, he has gone from a vibrant, brave young man to someone whose hopes and ambitions were cruelly taken away by that explosion.
Yet Jake is not a man to be pitied. The first thing you notice when meeting Jake are his jokes and his cheeky banter. With an incredible amount of black humour, Jake tells you how he remembers hearing the click of the detonator, the bang of the explosion, and looking down at the remnants of his shattered body as his comrades battled to save his life. Looking back, what does he feel about that day, I ask. “Oh well”, he says with a grin, “stuff happens”. With the dedication of an impressive team of doctors, physios and nurses, Jake is putting his life back together. He proudly struts around the ward showing me his computer controlled artificial legs known as C-legs, as if modelling the latest fashions on a London catwalk. There is not even a hint of self-pity in Jake, just as he has always done, he is determined to make the most of his life.
Incredibly every soldier I meet seems to have the same approach to life. Amongst the ribbing and the almost cruel mickey-taking between these soldiers, I hear about new aspirations – skiing, playing golf, ideas of new careers. These young men do not see themselves as victims, and nor do they want our pity. What they deserve is our respect and admiration and every support they can be given. In Headley Court they all tell me they are getting exactly that. The doctors and physios are the best in the world.
In the gym and swimming pool that was paid for by donations from Help for Heroes, I see injured soldiers swimming, running and lifting weights. Many of these men and women face constant pain and obstacles that they could be forgiven for feeling they could not overcome. Yet thanks to the team at Headley Court that is not the case. These are not patients, the staff tell me, they are military men and women and are expected to work. Their work is their rehabilitation, so that is why they are expected to be in the gym at 8am, ready for a gruelling day of exercise, physio and damn hard graft.
It is difficult to accept that these horrific injuries were suffered in the service of all of us, but it is an inspiration to see the spirit our servicemen and women show in the face of such adversity. They deserve the best and they are getting it. Our challenge is to ensure they continue to get the best when they leave Headley Court and get on with the rest of their lives. I have no doubt that what I saw at Headley Court will live with me and inspire me for the rest of my life. It really is an awe-inspiring place.