Triple amputee Giles Duley on the explosion that changed his life and how love and work rebuilt it

"The first thing I saw was my hand – smouldering and shattered – and then I realised I had no feet," recalls the war photographer

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Triple amputee Giles Duley on the explosion that changed his life and how love and work rebuilt it
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The first thing I felt was a click underfoot. There was no sound: just bright, white light. I remember being engulfed by heat, a feeling of weightlessness and being outside my body as I flew through the air.

You know when you jump into icy water and the breath is sucked out of you? That was the next sensation: landing, coming back to life. The first thing I saw was my hand – smouldering and shattered – and then I realised I had no feet. Looking up, I saw chunks of flesh and clothing in the tree above, which I knew wasn’t a good sign. I still couldn’t hear anything because my ears had been affected by the blast, so there was this eerie silence. I remember admiring the beautiful blue sky.

It was 7 February 2011 and I was on dawn patrol with American and Afghan National Army soldiers. All had been calm. Before the soldiers could come to my aid they had to check for secondary devices and bombs. It only took a minute or two but it felt like an eternity. They stopped me bleeding to death by applying tourniquets, but I begged them not to – the pain had kicked in by now.

I knew that if I lost consciousness I wouldn’t make it. I kept thinking: “Can I just stay alive for another two minutes until the helicopter gets here?” Yet at the same time I was saying to the sergeant, “Can you make sure my laptop gets packed up?” Your mind is working on all these different levels. I remember thinking, I can see, I’ve still got my right hand, I can still take pictures. The medevac crew couldn’t believe that this 40-year-old British guy was not only alive but politely thanking them.

People are often said to experience flashbacks when their time is near. In the helicopter, I had a flash forward. I remember thinking about the things I still wanted to do, and about my girlfriend Jen. How I knew she was the person I’d been looking for all my life. I wasn’t ready to give up on that.

Except that at the time Jen wasn’t my girlfriend. We’d been on dates but we’d never made it official. I’d emailed her from Afghanistan confessing that I was in love and wanted us to be a couple. The day I got blown up she replied to say she felt the same way, but I never got to read the email.

Giles Duley

I was in intensive care at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham for 46 days. My kidneys and lungs packed up. On two occasions they called my family to say their goodbyes. Jen wrote every day and my sister – who didn’t have a clue who she was – would read me her letters. Through my haze I remember thinking: have I missed something? Jen loves me?

So I was terrified of her coming to see me and I just assumed that she would not… would just want to be friends. But apparently she was terrified that I wouldn’t be interested in her any more. So she came down thinking: “I don’t know if he still likes me.”

We say that our relationship began on 25 March: the day I came out of intensive care and Jen could see me. She didn’t burst into tears, but you could see she was… unsettled. It wasn’t just the limb loss. I was gaunt, I was strapped to machines, I had a tracheotomy and so talking was difficult. Jen sat there holding my stump.

I think there were times when both of us thought it wouldn’t work out. After intensive care, I spent three months in the high-dependency unit and another month on the ward. The best dates we could hope for were in the hospital’s coffee shop. Even when I was discharged I was in a wheelchair so she’d have to pick me up and push me everywhere. I’ve always been fiercely independent so I found it very hard. I wanted to be her boyfriend, not a burden.

For me the lowest point came months later in the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Unit at Headley Court. I was their first civilian resident because the NHS didn’t know how to deal with me. I’d wasted away during the six months in hospital and had to relearn everything. One day I thought I had sussed it but I slipped in the shower room. I was naked, bleeding everywhere, helpless as a newborn. It took four nurses to lift me up and I felt incredibly vulnerable and incredibly useless. That was when it really struck home what my new life would be like.

Every morning I wake up and for a brief moment I forget. Then it dawns on me that I can’t just get out of bed and make myself a cup of tea. Every morning I have a heavy heart. Once I told a psychologist that I wanted to hang myself but I couldn’t even do that one-handed. It was a joke but there were times when I thought maybe it would be better if I hadn’t made it.

Giles DuleyWhen I was approached about making a documentary film, I accepted because I had unfinished business in Afghanistan. Firstly, I always said as soon as I was well enough I’d buy the medevac crew a drink. Both of them freely admitted when they saw people like me with my injuries, they wondered: did they do the right thing to let those people live? My being there proved they did. There were a lot of tears when we got together – and a lot of whisky. We all got a tattoo: the date I was blown up – 6 February 2011, which was the date back home.

Secondly, my mantra all the way through rehab was: I want my life back. To go back to Afghanistan to photograph civilian casualties would be having my life back. Yes, it’s a weird life and a potentially dangerous life. Yes, it was very hard for Jen and my family and I worried I was being selfish. But at the same time they’ve always known that this is who I am and what I do. It’s not that I’m a gung-ho person. I used to be a fashion and music photographer. I jetted around the world photographing everyone from Lenny Kravitz to Marilyn Manson to Mariah Carey. But I grew tired of the superficiality of it.

Giles DuleyI’ve been a humanitarian photographer for over a decade and I’m still petrified when I go to one of these places. But I think it’s more important for me to do it now. What’s happened has made me wonder how many people go through what I have and never have their stories heard? I realised it was an opportunity: I could get these stories out there in a way I couldn’t before – turn this into a positive.

In other ways it was hell. The first time I walked on grass again – almost a year after I was blown up – I had this paralysing terror that I was about to step on another IED. When I went back to Afghanistan, the fear returned: I found myself cowering under my bed, shaking, dripping with sweat, convinced there was a bomb outside. I could feel the heat coursing through my body and see the light coming through the window. Or I thought I could. But I have no regrets. I’m often asked if I wish I’d never gone. No, not at all.

At the moment I’m living on my own. It was one of the things that was really key for me. If you’re with somebody and they see you struggling to do something, their natural reaction is to do it for you. It’s just natural. So I really wanted to show everybody and myself that I could live completely independently.

And also, I wanted Jen and I to date properly because we’d never really had that experience. So we were able to start going out and seeing a film or going for a meal.

When we were asked at Christmas what we were hoping for in 2013, we both said: “the most boring year of our lives”. We want the most exciting thing we do to be The X Factor on a Saturday night and a takeaway.


Walking Wounded: Return to the Frontline is on Thursday at 10:00pm on Channel 4