It was not the best moment for Andy Barlow to discover he was immune to morphine. Moments earlier his left foot had disappeared.
He had reached for an ampule containing the painkiller, plunged it into his thigh and... nothing.
‘It normally takes about 30 minutes to kick in,’ he says in that clipped, matter-of-fact, down-to-earth way servicemen have of reliving life-or-death moments.
‘But with me it had no effect. I was in quite a lot of pain and I’m afraid I whinged a little bit that day.’
‘It wasn’t ideal,’ he adds with huge understatement.
Fusilier Barlow, a 19-year-old machine gunner with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was attached to the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan on September 6, 2006, when he took the small step on a rocky track which would blow his life apart.
It was his first tour of Afghanistan and his 12-strong unit was operating in 50C heat in the Kajaki Dam area of Helmand when they became trapped in what is believed to have been an old Soviet minefield from the 1980s.
Their leader, Corporal Mark Wright, 27, had already been severely wounded by one of the mines, as had another.
What happened next is indelibly etched in Andy’s memory. It will be for the rest of his life. ‘I was on my own trying to look after these two guys in the middle of a minefield, but you could hardly move in case you set off another mine. I flapped at first, then the training kicked in.
‘They were getting seriously dehydrated and I called for a water bottle to be thrown down to me. I caught the first and got some water into Mark. Then I called for a second. It hit my hand and fell on the floor. I stood up to reach it and bang, the next thing I was on the floor.’
Andy, now 28 and from Denmead, adds: ‘You don’t hear the bang. All I felt was the shockwave going through my body. About 30 seconds later I looked down and my left foot had disappeared. Then the pain kicked in. I never saw my foot again. It simply vanished.
‘I managed to rip up my shirt and tourniquet my leg. I was 19 and suddenly life had become real.’
He spent two hours lying in the dust and dirt urging his two wounded colleagues to stay alive. ‘We sang and told jokes with typical army black humour.’ His heroism that day earned him the George Cross – awarded to serving soldiers for acts of bravery not in the presence of the enemy.
Corporal Mark Wright also received the medal for the way in which he led his team. He got his posthumously.
A British Chinook helicopter arrived to rescue the unit, but as it came down it triggered another mine. A fourth soldier was badly injured and the Chinook left.
It was only after a long wait that an American Black Hawk helicopter evacuated the men back to Camp Bastion. Andy says: ‘I was conscious all the way to Bastion. It was during the flight that Mark passed away.
‘When we were waiting for the chopper he spoke his last words to us. We all remember them: ‘‘Tell my wife I love her. Tell my mum and dad I love them. Tell them I was a good soldier’’.’
A critically-acclaimed film, Kajaki: The True Story, produced by the Gareth Ellis-Unwin who made The King’s Speech, is showing at Vue cinemas nationwide, including Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth.
When we meet in a cafe there, Andy sits across the table from me. ‘It’s funny, but eight years after it disappeared, I can still feel my leg. In fact, now I’m thinking about it, I’m swinging it under this table now.’
Back at Bastion his left leg was amputated above the knee. ‘The next morning I threw the sheet off my leg, peered down and thought ‘‘that looks a bit short’’.’
He was flown to hospital at Selly Oak, Birmingham, for more operations before being transferred to Headley Court, Surrey, to have a prosthetic leg fitted and to learn to walk again.
And this is where Andy’s inspirational story takes an even more remarkable turn.
‘I lost my foot in September, but I was back at work in Cyprus in December with my boys, getting fitter and fitter. I was in hospital for just 12 days. Then into rehab and I was up and walking in a month to six weeks.’
Andy hoists up the leg of his jeans. ‘There it is – £70,000 of the finest prosthetic money can buy. Paid for by the MoD.’
He points to a bulge in his substitute calf. ‘That’s a computer. It’s amazing because it adjusts continuously to whatever I’m doing – skiing, sailing, kayaking, parachuting...
‘We’ve come such a long way since the days of simple hydraulics.’
Not every amputee soldier will get a new leg costing £70,000. But Andy Barlow is among the special ones thanks to his love of and aptitude for sport.
‘Not long ago a soldier with injuries like mine would have been medically discharged. Not any more. If you want to stay in, you can.’
Before his injuries he was a good rugby union player, a hulking lock forward. ‘I played for the regiment. I was in the second row with a Fijian who lost his leg the year before me in Iraq. After I lost mine my commander wrote to me saying ‘‘what is it with my rugby players and the Taliban?’’
‘I remember lying in my hospital bed thinking I hadn’t a clue what an amputee could do. Then I watched a double amputee, Sgt Mick Brennan, get up at 8am and go for a shave. I thought, if he can do that without two legs there must be loads I can do with one.
‘You have to get on with life. You can’t just sit there feeling sorry for yourself’
Andy had never skied, but in 2008 he was asked if he wanted a go. He took to it instantly and this year, as part of the Combined Services Disabled Ski Team, took part in the Sochi Winter Olympics. He hopes to compete as part of Team GB in 2018.
A year later came another call. This time it was from an old mate wondering if he had ever sailed. ‘I hadn’t, but I thought I’d give it a go and that’s what brought me to Portsmouth – an army yacht kept at Whale Island – and to Gosport in 2009. I loved it and now I teach sailing to able-bodied soldiers and their families.
‘I’ve sailed across the Atlantic and taken part in offshore races, usually as the only less-able member of the crew. Unfortunately we seem to keep being beaten by the navy.’ He pauses, remembering where he is, then adds: ‘That’s only fair I suppose.’
Throughout our meeting Andy’s services-inspired humour shines through and he does not use the word ‘disabled’. ‘I class myself as less-abled.’
He ponders for a moment. ‘Actually it depends who’s asking. If it’s anything to do with the blue badge for my car, oh yes, I’m disabled.’
Watch a trailer for the film here
‘The Day of Days’
He came to call it ‘the day of days’. Lt Col Stuart Tootal, commander of the 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, lost three men and personally zipped up and carried the body bag containing one of his dead soldiers from a helicopter as it landed in Camp Bastion.
That man was Corporal Mark Wright, a 27-year-old who was posthumously awarded a George Cross for bravery on that terrifying day in September 2006. In the hours leading to his death, three of the soldiers beside him lost limbs. One was Andy Barlow.
When the survivors gave evidence to the inquest, they were told by Andrew Walker, the deputy Oxford coroner: ‘You are courageous and utterly fearless. I have nothing but admiration for you and your fellow soldiers.’
The Kajaki landmine trap was the first of three major incidents on that day of days. In total, three of Tootal’s men died, 18 were injured, three lost limbs.
But looking back Andy, who retires from the army next Thursday to pursue his skiing and sailing careers, has no regrets. He grew up in Bolton. ‘I wasn’t the best teenager. I was involved with gangs, but the Army sorted me out, gave me a lifeline.’
He joined at 16 and went to the Junior Leaders College, Harrogate. ‘I got all the qualifications I’d failed at school and I was earning £1,000 a month. To a 16-year-old it was a fortune,’ he says.
‘When I went home my friends were skint, had no life and I realised they weren’t really friends. After all I’ve gone through I would never stop my children joining any of the services. It gives you an appreciation of life and what’s out there.’