Picture the scene. The Arctic Circle in all its frozen glory, temperatures of minus 38°C, winds of up to 110mph, and four combat veterans trudging painfully across the ice floes in a bid to reach the North Pole on foot. Oh, and with them, the third in line to the throne.
Give or take the 90kg sledges they’re pulling, that pretty much describes the scene at the start of Walking with the Wounded’s epic expedition in April this year, which involved four members of the armed forces – all of whom had been badly injured in Afghanistan; all trying to ski unsupported to the most northerly point in the world.
For the first three days of the expedition they were accompanied by no less a figure than Prince Harry, himself a veteran of the conflict, and thus acutely aware of what the men had been through. “These guys have been to hell and back and come out the other side,” he confides to camera, in a moment of downtime between sledge-hauling. “They are amazing, absolutely astonishing; the inspiration they give to everyone is unbelievable.
“I guess I have three different lives. One is my military life, one is my private life, one is the public stuff. But me as a military man is my number one favourite, because I get to spend time with people like this.”
Those people being Captain Martin Hewitt (paralysed right arm), Private Jaco van Gass (left arm amputated), Sergeant Steve Young (fractured vertebra) and Captain Guy Disney (right leg amputated below the knee).
For Captain Disney, completing the 13-day, 190-mile trek to the North Pole was, he says, one of the greatest moments of his life. However, there is no question in his mind as to when the expedition really took off.
“It was at the press launch months earlier when [expedition patron] Prince Harry suddenly said, ‘Any chance I can come too?’ Having him on board gave the whole charity a massive lift – public interest in what we were doing reached a whole new level.”
And while it could have cramped the team’s style to have a royal among their party, Captain Disney says the reverse was actually the case.
“To be honest, Harry was a really good bloke to have on the trip. Not only is he incredibly humble, but he’s also actively committed to his military career. We got rather frustrated when, at one point, the newspapers started making it seem he was just off on another jolly. We knew he was doing the trip in his own military leave time.
“There’s no doubt, either, that we’d never have raised so much money without him. The figure’s £520,000 and rising – more if we sell the documentary [Harry’s Arctic Heroes] to the US.
“The other misconception people have is that the money we raise pays for our expedition, but actually, that’s all covered by private sponsorship. Every penny we raise goes to the various military charities we’re supporting [Help for Heroes; Skill Force, an educational programme staffed by ex-services personnel; the Warrior Programme, for combat trauma victims; and Blesma, the British Limbless Ex-Service Men’s Association].”
As to how Captain Disney got involved, that goes back to Saturday 4 July 2009 in Afghanistan, when he was taking part in Operation Panther’s Claw. His Spartan armoured vehicle came under heavy fire and a rocket-propelled grenade pierced the hull. It hit his right leg and went on to kill another soldier in the vehicle, Private Robbie Laws of the Mercian Regiment.
“I looked down at my leg and, to be honest, there wasn’t a lot of it left below the knee,” says Disney, now 29. “Before I had my operation that evening, I asked the surgeon, ‘Any chance you can save the leg?’ From his face, I knew the answer was probably no.
“That was the bad news. The good news was that, when I woke up, I found myself in the same ward as a pal whom I’d thought was dead. On Sunday evening, I was flown out of Afghanistan, and by Monday I was back in the UK.”
With plenty of time to take stock, he set himself a series of targets for his recovery. Six months into his rehab, the idea of a wounded servicemen’s expedition to the Arctic came up, and he was one of the first to put his name forward.
Of course, many men with two legs couldn’t pull a heavy sledge across miles of frozen terrain, but Captain Disney is made of stern stuff. In fact, trying to keep up with him as he strides across the barracks parade ground at Swanton Morley in Norfolk, regimental HQ of the Light Dragoons, you would have no idea that his right leg consists of a stump and a prosthesis. He marches without the faintest hint of a limp.
That said, he needed all his strength and determination in the Arctic. “There were days when my leg was extremely sore,” he recalls. “The stump would swell in the night and it was hard getting it back into the prosthesis. And small pieces of shrapnel would find their way to the surface each night, and I’d have to pick them out of the skin.
“But I never thought of stopping. Besides, being an amputee does have some advantages in the Arctic, in that you’ve got fewer extremities, so you don’t feel the cold quite as bad.
“The hard part was asking for help. There were moments when I needed a bit of assistance. You have to take on board that not asking for help can cause problems for everyone, if you get into trouble.”
There was no place in the party for self-pity. Nor is there in Captain Disney’s life. “I consider myself lucky,” he says. “First off, I got hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, not an IED [improvised explosive device]. With an IED, you don’t just lose a limb, you sustain a lot of other injuries as well. I’m not exactly on my own, either; there are a lot of guys coming back now, missing bits and bobs. Secondly, I lost one of the guys in the vehicle, and remembering that is a pretty good coping strategy. I visit his grave every year and I go to see his mother.
“Before our vehicle got hit, Private Laws had been out clearing a number of IEDs, and without doubt he saved a good number of lives. The fact remains, though, that he was my responsibility, and it will hang over me for ever that I lost him.”
The knowledge has spurred Captain Disney to volunteer to go back to Afghanistan. “I’ll be going out next March for a six- to seven-month tour,” he announces, with evident relish. “I’m really looking forward to returning. It’s a great country, and there are so many lovely, honourable people there. Just before Panther’s Claw, I took some food to a farmer’s compound, and he showed me this extraordinary garden he had created, right in the middle of the wilderness, with a beautifully mown lawn. He was just so proud of it.
“I’ll be working on the Forward Air Control desk for some of the time, but I’m hoping to go out on a good few ops, as well. Basically, if I didn’t feel up to doing ops, I wouldn’t stay in the Army.
“That’s pretty much how all the boys feel. As a soldier, the one thing you never want to be to your comrades is a burden.”
The next Walking with the Wounded challenge is an expedition to climb Mount Everest. For details visit wwtw.org.uk