Pilgrim Bandits Patron, former Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson, MBE of 7 Para RHA is one of the most seriously injured to survive the battlefield. He lost both legs and suffered brain damage while serving in Afghanistan in 2006. He was not expected to survive, let alone speak or walk again. But his determination and tenacity meant he defied these odds and he has become an inspiration to all that know him.
Ben credits much of his astounding recovery to the support he has received from Pilgrim Bandits over the years and the life-changing expeditions he has been on. This has brought great joy to Ben’s mother and biggest supporter, Diane, who has remained at his side throughout his journey to recovery.
With Ben’s blessing, she tells his story.
“Ben joined the military when he was only 16, he went to the Junior Leaders College at Harrogate always with a view to going into the Parachute Regiment. He did his year at Harrogate and then, aged 17, went into the 7 Para Royal Horse Artillery after training at Lark Hill, the artillery school.
“He was deployed to Iraq when he was only 18 for the War in 2003. He fought the battle of Nazaria in Iraq on his 19th birthday. Ben was in the first allied vehicle across the border in the Iraq war, so he was always in the thick of it. We never heard a word from him – the only way we knew what was happening was because we would occasionally see 7 Para and Ben on news reports – at home as a family, it was a worrying time. When he came home, he never spoke about his time out there. We all thought he had fought his war and he may think to build a career in a peace-time setting, but he had no intention of leaving the military.”
Instead Ben joined P Company, a training and selection organisation of the British Armed Forces based at the Infantry Training Centre. He travelled the world and was eventually promoted to Lance Bombardier before volunteering to be deployed to Afghanistan.
We were told by the Minister of Defence that there would never be a shot fired in Afghanistan as this was a peace-keeping mission. But, two young Officer’s lost their lives almost straight away. Ben was six and a half months into the seven-month tour and we hoped he would soon be home. Then one Tuesday morning he was providing top cover for a MOD Operating Group. He was in a small flanking vehicle – an open top Land Rover – protecting one of the sides when they went over a thirty-year-old Russian anti-tank mine. The explosion was huge. It picked the vehicle up and threw it over thirty yards. The two other lads stayed in the vehicle and were forced down into the sand, receiving only a few injuries, which is a blessing, but Ben was catapulted out and landed another thirty yards away. He shouldn’t have survived.
“Helicopters were unable to immediately get to the scene of the accident. His team medic, one of the guys on the ground, who was really not much more than a first aider, had brought with him kit to put a tracheotomy in. He shouldn’t really have had it, but they had all been increasing their kit because of the seriousness of what was going on. He put it into Ben’s throat and kept him alive. That’s what saved his life.
“Everyone on the ground rushed in – it could quite easily have been a mine field, but nobody thought about that they all just wanted to help. At this point, Ben was unconscious and they splintered his legs – they didn’t think there was a great deal of damage to his legs. A helicopter came to pick him up and a signal went back to the ground to say that he had died. Despite this, his best friend and CO picked him up and took him into Camp Bastien. There was no hospital and they took a decision that the only way to save him was to amputate his legs. They had nothing to treat them with, there wasn’t even enough water to wash his wounds.
“Ben was eventually brought to a Hospital in Birmingham – the decision was made to bring him home to be with his family when he died. We sat by Ben’s side willing him to survive. After six months, he was transferred to the Royal Hospital for Neuro Disability at Putney – a hospital for the unluckiest people on the planet we soon found – before eventually moving on to Headley Court Hospital. In total Ben spent two and a half years in hospital.”
When Ben regained consciousness, his family had the terrible job of telling him that he had lost his legs.
“We got the impression that he already knew. I’ve never ever known him down or depressed, he’s also never accepted that he was not going to walk or that he wasn’t going to talk. He certainly never accepted that he wouldn’t come out of hospital as we’d been told. We as parents have been down and had terrible times. We spent months and months praying that he would live, then we had this euphoria when we realised he wasn’t going to die and we weren’t going to lose him. Then we started to think what on earth are we going to do to give Ben a life worth living. We were told that he would go into residential care because we would never be able to give him a life worth living.
“We thought that at least if he was at home he would be with family. We reached out to charities that were doing rehabilitation challenges and asked if Ben could take part. We received letters saying that this wouldn’t be possible, but that he would be able to have respite in one of their care homes. The only thing he’d been offered to do was to go and watch a fishing trip or water sport demonstration. Nobody had given a thought to the fact that Ben could get involved in such activities.”
Ben’s family entered a phase of desperation in the search for someone that could help them. Then they were contacted by Pilgrim Bandits.
“Ben was very limited with what he could do, he didn’t have full use of his arms and was still using the light writer, he had no speech, but he was on Facebook. In 2011 he received a Facebook message saying ‘how would you feel about fan-dancing with the Pilgrims’. I had no idea what it meant, but Ben knew!
“Pilgrim Bandits arranged that Ben would do a parachute jump and we met them down at Netheravon, Ben did his jump and got on well with everybody. A week later the MD of the Charity got in touch with me and said, ‘how did we feel about Ben going Skiing?’ I said, ‘how will he do that?’ and the response was ‘leave that to us – we’ll do it’.
“Ben needs 24-hour care and so not only were they offering to take Ben skiing, but to take a Carer with him and that was what no-one else was able to do, because taking Ben meant the additional cost of a Carer. Not only this but they also arranged for the best instructor to work with Ben and they also got the inventor of the sit ski to join them, so Ben had got the very best team out there to support him. Now we have videos and pictures of Ben Skiing, falling over in the snow, laughing his head off and taking off down the slope. Life just got better from that moment on.”
Ben has joined Pilgrim Bandits on a number of life-changing expeditions and challenges, including using a tandem to cycle across New Zealand and becoming the first double amputee to cross the Hardanger Plateau in Norway and one of the few to conquer the mighty Yukon River in Canada. More recently, he joined the Pilgrim Bandits on a Winter Survival Course in Sweden, trekking across inhospitable terrain, adapting to freezing temperatures and learning new skills.
“Pilgrim Bandits became Ben’s life – not only going on expeditions, but raising money so that others could get involved too. And he’s made a really close circle of friends, including supporters of the charity and fundraisers. It became a social thing for him too. Collecting money and having a team working with him, representing the Pilgrims at rotaries and schools and colleges. Pilgrim Bandits filled Ben’s life and gave him what we were afraid we couldn’t give him.
“Ben was honoured to carry the Olympic torch in 2012 and he did this surrounded by his Regiment and the Pilgrim Bandits. He got his MBE the year after and it was the MD of Pilgrim Bandits that took him there to receive it. When everyone else had written him off, it was Pilgrim Bandits that gave him life and gave him opportunities. Pilgrim Bandits’ no sympathy approach and ethos of going always a little further is exactly how Ben wanted to live his life, it’s what kept him going when he was in hospital. We believe it is fate that he came to know of Pilgrim Bandits. So, it’s not just him wanting them to be there through his successes, it’s acknowledging that they’re responsible for everything that Ben has today.”
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