First published in Devon Life magazine, September 2017
Former lance corporal Andrew White describes being informed of his medical discharge from the Coldstream Guards, as “the worst moment of my life”.
At the age of 22, the exemplary soldier with four years service faced an uncertain future after losing the feeling in both of his feet through prolonged exposure to the cold during an exercise.
Depression and disillusionment set in. But then he heard about the Invictus Games. Founded by Prince Harry in 2014, the games are for wounded, injured or sick serving armed forces personnel and veterans to compete across different sporting disciplines in an international, paralympic style event. The games have proved inspirational and rehabilitative, mentally and physically, for hundreds of men and women.
Andrew White, 23, from Okehampton, is one of 90 team GB members due to take part in the games being held in Toronto between September 23rd and 30th. More than 770 prospective athletes applied and Andrew was one of seven from Devon to qualify out of 330 who were trialled for the squad.
Andrew will represent Great Britain in the criterum, a 1.7k tactical road race over a set time, and a 11-kilometre time trial. The steep roads criss-crossing Dartmoor are his training ground and Andrew has found support as part of Okehampton Cycling Club.
“I followed in my grandfathers footsteps who left school and trained to be a carpenter and then went into the Army,” Andrew tells me as we shelter from the drizzle on the north fringe of the moor. His father was also in the Royal Artillery for eight years during his 20s.
“After studying carpentry at college I wanted to see the world and continue being active in my work life, so threw myself into the Army,” he says.
Andrew was 18 when he became a soldier. Unusually, he was promoted after just a year and after a short posting in South Korea, found himself in Kabul as part of the British military’s final tour to Afghanistan, Herrick 20 in 2014.
The 20-year-old was a vehicle commander based at the international airport. His role included being ready to react to any hostile incidents and ensure the safe onward travel of kit, luggage, post and supplies.
“No shots were fired by us in that time, which was a good thing,” he recalls. “So in that sense it was a relatively tame time, and there was a great sense of camaraderie,” Andrew recalls. “The real pressure occurred on the occasions the prototype Foxhound patrol vehicles we were in broke down in the middle of Kabul. All of a sudden everyone around us became potential suspects and us a target. Thank fully this didn’t happen much, but we had a few, but what do you expect in 40 degree heat?”
Upon his return home, Andrew took part in a 350-mile charity cycle with the regiment to France, for which he was recognised as the fastest cyclist. He was then posted to Kenya during which time he learnt about the opportunity of another cadre to further his soldiering.
It was during the final exercise in the Brecon Beacons in January 2015, which saw his reconnaissance patrol team remaining static for several days in sub zero temperatures, that Andrew suffered tissue damage in his feet after a prolonged exposure to the cold, resulting in numbness, known as a non-freezing cold injury.
He was medevaced off the exercise and commenced 10-months of sick leave throughout which he was hardly able to leave the house, struggled to walk and had to rely on his fiancé, now wife, for support. A series of assessments finally culminated in his medical discharge in August 2016.
“I was devastated,” he recalls. “The Army was everything to me. I was proud to serve. My intention was to complete my 22 years service. I worked so hard to get in the Army and worked so hard when I was there to be the best soldier I could be. And then it was gone. I just broke down,” he adds, admitting that depression set in and lasted for months. “I really struggled.”
While his friends went off to Belize on exercise, Andrew sat down to embark on the first of some 100 unsuccessful job applications. Eventually, he started an apprenticeship as a mechanic but, when the opportunity arose, he took a job as a sales executive with Rentokil, one of several companies which are part of the Military of Defence’s Career Transition Partnership resettlement programme.
It was during one of the MoD’s resettlement training courses, that Andrew’s course tutor suggested he go for the Invictus Games (after catching him watching the Giro d’Italia on his iPad).
“I knew I wanted to go for it, and I knew I wanted to win,” Andrew smiles. His determination and prowess on two wheels paid off and after attending three training camps in the first half of this year, he found out he’d made the cut in May. Andrew’s coach Nigel Hale-Hunter will accompany him to the competition.
“The Games have given me a focus, away from my injuries,” Andrew adds. “This has helped lift the depression and taken a weight off my shoulders. And through meeting other people, including those who have lost limbs and are still smiling and getting on with life, it’s been inspiring.”
Andrew is in need of a far lighter bike to compete on and is seeking potential sponsors to help him: for more information visit, www.gofundme.com/andrew-whites-invictus-games-fund
Devon’s Invictus Games athletes:
Former Royal Engineer Ross Austen, 35, from Fremington, north Devon is competing in the power lifting event. Ross’s legs were severely injured during an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blast in Afghanistan in 2008 resulting in the amputation of his left leg.
Dominic Nott, 25, from Plymouth serves with the Royal Navy’s rehabilitation unit, Hasler Company after being diagnosed with a visual impairment in 2015. Dominic is competing in the rowing, swimming and shot put events.
Former Royal Marine Mark Ormrod from Plymouth, 33, lost both legs and his right arm after stepping on an IED in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2007. Mark is competing in the cycling, rowing, swimming and athletics events.
Royal Marines colour sergeant Dave Watts, 39, from Exmouth, who has PTSD and an ongoing issues related to a wrist injury, is serving with Hasler Company. The 39-year-old is competing in swimming and archery.
Former Army corporal Kelly Ganfield, 36, from Plymouth, was medically discharged in 2005 due to a rare blood disorder resulting in visual impairment and epilepsy. Kelly will compete in the 100 metres, 200 metres, discus and rowing events.