Ballymena soldier fighting back to fitness after Taliban bomb

PRESS EYE-BELFAST-NORTHERN IRELAND''Ballymena man Philip Gillespie who lost a limb whilst serving in Afghanistan.''Pic : BrianThompson/Presseye.com
PRESS EYE-BELFAST-NORTHERN IRELAND''Ballymena man Philip Gillespie who lost a limb whilst serving in Afghanistan.''Pic : BrianThompson/Presseye.com

A SOLDIER from Ballymena who lost part of his right leg in an explosion in Afghanistan has spoken of his hopes that he will run a marathon one day.

Phillip Gillespie, from Galgorm, has undergone six operations and hours of gruelling rehabilitation since the attack in Helmand Province in January.

But the brave 23-year-old member of the Support Company with 1 Royal Irish Regiment says that losing part of his leg won’t stop him leading an active life.

And, displaying remarkable lack of self- pity, he says that seeing worse wounded servicemen has made him appreciate his relative good fortune.

Phillip, who helped rescue a comrade gunned down by the Taliban days before he was injured, can still vividly recall the horrific moment he placed his foot on the pressure pad of the lethal improvised explosive device [IED] but says he is grateful he remained conscious throughout his ordeal.

“There was a moment when I stepped on the IED — just a millisecond — when I realised what I had done, and the next thing I was blown onto my back,” he said.

“My initial thought was that someone else had been hit. When I looked down at my left leg, it looked OK, but then I realised that my right leg was bad.

“The pain was really bad, but the other soldiers were over to me in seconds and they treated me. I was then flown to the hospital and was being treated there just over 20 minutes later.

“I am glad in a way that I was conscious and knew what was happening the whole time. If I had just woken up in hospital, then the shock would probably have been a lot worse.”

The attack came just days after Phillip and another soldier were caught up in a dramatic gun battle.

“We came under fire from the Taliban and were trying to get cover.

“We were running side by side through a field, when [the other soldier] got shot in both ankles by a single bullet.

“I had to treat him there and get him evacuated out of there, so I knew exactly what to expect when I was hit.

“The angle that he was shot at meant that the bullet must have gone between my legs and hit him, and we have been joking that that bullet was really meant for me and not him.”

The former pupil of Cullybackey High School was on his third tour of Afghanistan, after previous deployments in 2006 and 2008.

A veteran almost, he was all to aware of the constant threat from the hidden IEDs.

“As soldiers going into Afghanistan we are prepared for battle and fights with the Taliban, but with IEDs, there’s very little can you do. That’s what so frightening about them and why so many soldiers have been killed or injured.

“That day it happened, we were concerned about the trail we were walking down, and I had walked around the area in a loop, and had come back onto the main trail further down, when I stood on it.

“We were constantly aware that there might be IEDs anywhere and everywhere, but that doesn’t stop them going off.”

Phillip was taken to Camp Bastion, where the lower part of his right leg was amputated.

He was then flown back to Birmingham for further treatment.

Seven months on from the attack, Phillip and his girlfriend Kirsty from Harryville are looking forward to moving into their new home in Broughshane.

“We cannot wait to move in. It’s a fantastic house, but we still have to get a kitchen fitted and other things sorted out first,” said Phillip.

“I know how lucky I am just to be here and to be able to get around.

“The support I have had from Kirsty, my family and friends has been brilliant and that has really helped me.

“And I couldn’t have asked for any more from the army, they have done everything for me that was needed.

“When I travel over to Hedley Court [in Surrey] and see some of those who have been really badly injured, it makes me realise that my situation is not that bad at all really.”

Indeed, Phillip has already begun wearing his prosthetic limb and hopes to be fully mobile in the coming months.

“It’s a bit difficult at the minute. I need another operation, as the stump is still too swollen to wear it properly,

“But once that is sorted out, I should be able to get walking properly again.

“The army will also give me an athletic limb, which I can use for running, and once I get running again, I might think about doing a marathon.

“The physio work is quite tough, but it has to be done to build up the muscles and I have to get on with it. There’s no other choice really.”

His calm determination and refusal to let his missing limb weaken his spirit has even surprised Kirsty.

“I think we were all waiting for this to get to him at some stage, but it hasn’t. I think we were all more worried than he was,” she laughed.

Phillip added: “There is a psychological effect with these types of attacks, but I never really felt too down about it.

“As I’ve said, I just have to get on with it, and I have so many things to work towards and look forward to, and losing the bottom of my leg won’t stop me doing all these things.”

Phillip is not only determined to walk and run again, he has also set his sights on the world’s most famous off-road motorsport race.

The Galgorm man is taking part in the major fundraising ‘Race2Recovery’ initiative, in which a small group of wounded British soldiers will take part in the Dakar Rally.

In January 2013 the team will start the race in South America after 18 months of training and racing in the UK, Europe and North Africa.

“It is really exciting to be part of this. I am the only person from Northern Ireland on the team, so that is a real privilege,” said Phillip.

“We are hoping to raise around £2 million for three very worthy causes and I am sure we will get a great response from the public.”

The Dakar Rally typically covers a staggering 9,000km in 15 days through Argentina and Chile, although every year the route is improved or changed. In earlier years, the race was held in Africa.

With typical speeds of between 70-120mph and up to 700km covered per day through some of the most arduous terrain on the planet, the stress and strain on the driving team, vehicle and the mechanics is severe.

The wounded soldiers hope that their teamwork, and experience of sleep deprivation built up during their time in the military will give them an edge over the other, more experienced teams in this event.

Phillip said: “I know how difficult this is going to be, it’s another major challenge, but it is one that I am really looking forward to, and I will be putting all my efforts into getting into shape for it.

“It will be a great chance to show our appreciation for the efforts of the charities, which help to look after people like myself.”

On the website for the charity rally, Corporal Phillip Gillespie is described as a “hardened veteran” of “unshakable determination”.

“Even though the blast blew off his right leg below the knee and inflicted multiple fractures to his left leg, Phillip was able to celebrate his 23rd birthday with his girlfriend Kirsty after spending just one month in hospital,” the website states.

“After six operations, unshakable determination and endless support from Kirsty, Phillip joins the project as a member of the mechanical team just five months after sustaining his injuries.”

Over the coming months fundraising events will run by the team and volunteers across the UK to raise money for three service charities: Help for Heroes, The Royal British Legion and Combat Stress.

Those who would like to be an event sponsor, help fundraise or would like more information about the challenge, can visit the website www.race2recover.co.uk