Last summer a nation basked in the success of London 2012 as Paralympic athletes from around the world descended on London to delight a global audience with their extraordinary feats of will and determination. And who could reflect on that sporting glory without mentioning blade runner Oscar Pistorius who inspired a generation of Paralympians by becoming the first to compete alongside able-bodied athletes.
That is, until Valentine’s Day when the news broke of his murder charge. The events of last week have been met with global disbelief as the man who many had on a pedestal finds his reputation shaken thanks to the allegations facing him.
So what better time for a documentary about an inspirational man who – like so many of those extraordinary athletes we had the privilege to watch last summer – has overcome extreme fear, pain and adversity? Step forward photographer Giles Duley, who back in February 2011 lost three of his limbs after stepping on an IED whilst patrolling with US troops in Afghanistan.
Following 30 operations, 45 days in intensive care and a year spent in and out of hospital, he is rebuilding his life. His aim? To return to Afghanistan and tell the story of civilian casualties who have suffered the same fate.
Duley calls himself “incredibly lucky” for surviving his accident. And he is – especially when you come to understand that it is unlikely an Afghan with comparable injuries would have received medical attention in time. Some local casualties travel up to eight hours to reach a doctor, while Duley’s helicopter ride to hospital took just 14 minutes.
His feeling of gratitude echoes the words of Team GB’s sitting volleyball player Martine Wright who lost both her legs in the 7/7 London bombings. Back in August the country reacted in disbelief as she spoke of serendipity when recalling the terrorist attack that cost her her mobility. “I truly believe that I was meant to do this journey,” she said whilst refusing to make allowances for the loss of her limbs.
In tonight’s documentary, Walking Wounded: Return to the Frontline, Duley asked, “What’s the point of fear if you don’t face up to it?”. The refusal of both to wallow in self-pity has led both to achieve astonishing feats.
As a person Duley is instantly likeable. His frank account of the day he was blown up is matched by eerie footage showing medics frantically working to save his life. Snippets of conversation between the medevac crew members and their patient reveal Duley politely thanking the men who are battling to save his life. And their emotional reunion later on in the programme proves that he is not just an inspiration to other victims, but to those who provide the treatment that brings the critically injured back from death’s door.
Duley freely admits that there were times during his recovery when he questioned whether life was worth living, but the footage of him travelling back to Afghanistan to meet with civilian victims – often amputees – leaves no doubt in the mind of the viewer.
What makes his story even more extraordinary is his relationship with girlfriend Jen Robertson. The two only shared a handful of dates before he left for Afghanistan but, sure of his feelings, he emailed her from the frontline to tell her he loved her and wanted to start a relationship. She replied the day he was injured saying she felt the same – but he never had a chance to read the email.
Finding himself in a hospital bed, unable to move independently, let alone think about starting a relationship, Giles presumed Jen would cut and run, but she wrote to him every day and has stood by his side during his lengthy recovery process. She admits she’s “petrified” about him going back to Afghanistan but the pair are testament to the sheer bloody-mindedness required to overcome the trauma Giles has suffered.
And it is clear his compulsion to make this programme is not to revel in self-adulation, but to make it clear to audiences back home the disparity in care available to military and civilian war casualties. Duley meets a teenage boy whose wounded leg is rotting. Had he got to the hospital in time, it might have been saved but doctors are now recommending amputation. “When he loses his leg it means his life will be over,” laments his father to Duley who is stood at the edge of the hospital bed, armed with a camera and his £5000 prosthetic limbs. His life is a considerable challenge – and always will be – but compared to these defenceless Afghans whose injuries will likely lead to a lifetime of ostracisation his earlier talk of “luck” resonates.
Duley claims that taking photographs is the only time when the pain and balance problems that stem from his injuries fade into the background, allowing him moments of escapism and clarity. And it is through his photography that he continues to be an inspiration to the injured Afghans he gets to know – especially those struggling with the early stages of their rehabilitation. Watching him walk alongside wide-eyed eight-year-old Ataqullah who is learning to use his new prosthetic arm and leg is incredibly moving – and provides a neat conclusion to Duley’s extraordinary story. As he readily acknowledges, his determination to tell the tale of these victims has taken on a whole new level of irony since his accident – but their ability to identify with him as a result of it is something truly special.
Walking Wounded: Return to the Frontline is on Channel 4 at 10pm tonight, Thursday 21 February