WATCHING the death of a fellow Royal Marine in Afghanistan was the catalyst for a trauma that would cripple Lieutenant Colonel Joe Winch years later – and drive him to scale the world’s tallest mountain.
It happened on his first tour in Afghanistan in 2006. He was a young Captain and leading men on operations in Helmand Province.
The man who died was a close friend and was killed 100m away from Joe, who was commanded the mission.
‘During a five-year period I have had well in excess of 40 good friends and close colleagues get killed,’ said the married dad-of-three from Gosport. ‘Most went in horrific circumstances.’
It wasn’t until two years ago that Joe realised just how much of a toll the losses had had on his mental health.
He broke down, being diagnosed with acute complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He struggled leaving home and supporting his family; the smallest sound would trigger terrifying flashbacks.
‘Normal life for me was so chaotic,’ he said. ‘I just desperately wanted to escape.’
Seeking solace, the Commando returned to one of the things he knew best – mountain climbing. And it proved to be the saving grace on his journey to recovery.
Now he is hoping to summit Mount Everest and prove to others that PTSD shouldn’t be a barrier from achieving incredible things.
He said: ‘PTSD is not the death sentence that some people think it might be. It won’t always lead to somebody committing suicide.
‘This is about proving that PTSD is difficult but you can get through it. Life can still be amazing and fulfilling with it.’
The inspirational Marine has been training for months for his expedition, which will be with 65 Degrees North, a charity that seeks to rehabilitate injured service personnel.
Joe has already tackled endurance challenges with 65 Degrees North, scaling the 20,310ft of Alaska’s Denali mountain in June last year.
He said: ‘The mountains are a magical place. They’re so quiet. It’s that place that helps me balance and maintain my symptoms and live life.’
Joe will be jetting off to the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu on April 1. From here he will begin the arduous 12-day hike to Everest base camp, climbing almost about 19,000ft in this time.
Then he will live on Everest, tackling various training climbs, before attempting to summit the 29,029ft mountain in mid May.
He will be so high he will need to carry his own oxygen while braving bone-chilling temperatures of -20 degrees.
‘I’m really excited to get out there,’ he said. ‘I’m looking forward to going to somewhere completely new, a new culture, new smells and sound - that will wreak havoc with my PTSD but that’s the only way I can get better by experiencing all these things.
‘I’m actually looking to summit on around the second anniversary of me being diagnosed with PTSD.’
Joe is still employed with the Royal Marines and working through a rehabilitation course, which he hopes will allow him to one day return to full duties.