Arthur Williams: we must not forget the wounded soldiers of Britain

The pilot and former soldier, who continues his new Channel 4 series tonight, looks back on the difficulties he faced after losing the use of his legs

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Living with a disability is incredibly hard. I’ve been paraplegic for eight years now after a car crash in 2007 left me paralysed from the waist down. I was 20 and in the beginning life was a real struggle. I had to become accustomed to how my body worked, how it had changed.

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Before the accident I’d spent five proud years in the Royal Marines and served in Sierra Leone. This meant that I was lucky enough to be able to spend a lot of my recovery at Headley Court in Surrey, the rehabilitation centre for British forces. It was a long process. I was at Headley Court for three months, much of which involved me learning to use a wheelchair.

The accident also left me homeless. I’d always stayed with my mum when I was on leave from the Marines but she lived in a three-storey Victorian house which was a nightmare to manoeuvre in a wheelchair. I struggled to even get in the front door! So I had to find new civilian lodgings. At times it became a bit too much, but thanks to the support of the brilliant medical staff, Help for Heroes which fundraises for the centre – and of course my family – I made a good recovery and left Headley Court determined to carve out a new career for myself. Which I did. As well as training for my pilot’s licence, I went on to have a successful career as a broadcaster, working with C4 as a presenter for the 2012 Paralympic Games as well as making documentaries on World War I and aviation.

It would have been a very different story without the support of the military. I can’t explain how much of a transition soldiers have to make both mentally and physically to go from being fit and active one minute to being disabled the next. It only takes a second to have your leg blown off but it takes an awful lot longer to come to terms with it. For injured veterans, the war and its consequences will last a lifetime. I’m concerned that our support for them will not.

At the end of 2014, after 13 long years, British troops finally arrived home from an ugly war in Afghanistan that had blurred the lines of conventional warfare. The number of UK servicemen and women killed in the conflict stands at 454. And then of course there are those who were injured. 

Ever since coalition forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the media tirelessly covered every aspect of the military campaign. In Britain, we backed our troops admirably. However, now that we don’t have daily reminders of the conflict in our papers and on our TV screens, I’m worried that people will forget that our troops still need support. 

Between 2010 and 2011, we witnessed some of the most intense fighting in British military history. The public recognised this with unprecedented levels of support. In 2010 Help for Heroes raised over £45m. In 2011 that rose to £46.6m. Unfortunately this has fallen in recent years with the organisation raising £37.2m in 2014.

Admittedly, this is still quite a healthy sum but I often sit at home and worry about the fundraising targets for Help for Heroes falling year after year. Of course, this was inevitable after we pulled out of Afghanistan but we can’t ignore the ongoing needs of injured and disabled veterans. It’s vital they have support in the immediate aftermath of their injury but it’s actually later in life, when old age creeps in and they maybe can no longer go out to make a living, that they really need our help.  

Yes, the conflict in Afghanistan may be over but it must not be a case of out of sight and out of mind when it comes to our veterans. Anytime you read or watch a report about current tensions, take a moment to reflect on what those who fought in wars gone by might be up to. And if you can, give them a hand.

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Arthur Williams’s Flying to the Ends of the Earth continues on Channel 4 tonight (Monday 10th August) at 8.00pm